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Falcons training camp battles: Many men and the dream of being the 6th wide receiver

The Falcons have a half-dozen receivers jockeying for just one roster spot.

NFL: DEC 23 Falcons at Panthers Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Falcons have five guys more or less locked into roles at wide receiver heading into the 2019 season. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy and Russell Gage all bring something to the passing game, Sanu bringing actual passing acumen and Hardy adding value as the team’s premier blocker at the position. In addition, Gage is a core special teamer, meaning those five guys are pretty much locked and loaded.

Beyond that, there’s probably only room for one more wide receiver on this football team heading into the year, plus one or two on the 10 man practice squad. There are also, per my back of napkin calculations, approximately 30 guys competing for those spots. I am, admittedly, not a math person.

With so much competition, though, we’ll hopefully wind up with a sixth man who can make the gameday roster and contribute. We’ll also hopefully end up with a practice squad candidate or two who can chip in down the line, much the way that Marvin Hall and others have done in years past. Here’s a brief rundown of each of the candidates for the gig.

Who wins?

The contenders

WR/RB/KR/PR Marcus Green, 22, rookie

The early favorite for several reasons. Green has real versatility, having run the ball effectively and shown off terrific wheels as a receiver in college, and that’s part of the reason the team drafted him in the first place. Even if he’s lightly used, the potential for this team to move him around and let his speed speak for him is a compelling one.

But that’s not the only reason Green is the favorite. The other is that he’s a bonafide option at returner, having turned in some productive games in that role in college and coming into a battle against Kenjon Barner and Shawn Bane (more on him soon), a battle he can certainly win. Positional versatility, raw speed and upside, and special teams value will earn you a roster spot, and Green just needs to be healthy and look good this summer and it’s probably his gig.

WR/PR/KR Shawn Bane, undrafted rookie

The other returner option in this rookie class, at least for the moment. Bane specialized in punt returns in college, finishing with one of NW Missouri State’s best-ever punt return averages, but was also a productive receiver who like Green has sub-4.40 speed and very few qualms about using it. Bane’s excellence as a receiver and returner (small school competition notwithstanding) means you shouldn’t overlook him for the sixth receiver gig or a practice squad spot, especially if Green falters even a little bit early on in the summer.

WR Devin Gray, 24, entering 2nd season with Atlanta

If we’re talking purely about talent as a receiver, Gray might be the most compelling option here. Gray had a productive college career—he put up 86 receptions for 1,304 yards and 8 touchdowns over his last two seasons at Cincinnati—and he looked terrific last summer for the Falcons in preseason, snagging six receptions for 111 yards and standing out particularly well in the first game, where he reeled in 4 for 83. He has decent size, good speed, and good hands, but the major obstacle would be that he’s shown less on special teams to this point than other options on that list. If he can carve out a role there over the summer, the practice squad is again a realistic possibility.

WR Christian Blake, 23, entering 2nd season with Atlanta

Blake and Gray were both intriguing to Steve Sarkisian, who as you may have noticed is no longer around. Like Gray, Blake enjoyed a quality college career at Northern Illinois, has solid enough size, and is a quality athlete with real upside. He has time with this team under his belt, too, having spent the last season on the practice squad with Gray. He’s got to prove special teams value at some point along the way here and he didn’t quite put together Gray’s strong preseason in 2018, but certainly the experience and potential give him a shot to stick around.

WR Olamide Zaccheaus, undrafted rookie

Bane’s special teams value and Green’s overall game make them my early favorites to push for the sixth spot, but if I was choosing a new receiver to keep around for the long haul, it would probably be Zaccheaus. He’s got some experience as a returner, too, having done that 35 times in college, though the Falcons have yet to try him there as far as I’m aware.

The word that applies best to Zaccheaus is explosive. He’s capable of accelerating and changing direction with impressive quickness, allowing him to beat coverage and get free with the ball in his hands. Scouts knock his height (he’s 5’8”) and hands, but he’s an absolute pest on short routes and at his best reminds you of Taylor Gabriel. Time and significant work on his hands could turn him into a compelling weapon as a player who can serve as a safety valve near the line of scrimmage with the speed and explosiveness to turn short gains into long ones, but in year one he’s probably hoping to be a practice squad stash. I like his long-term potential a lot.

WR C.J. Worton, **, undrafted rookie

The FIU product did nice work in his senior season with 37 receptions for 627 yards and 6 touchdowns after mostly serving as a reserve the previous three years at Florida. There’s not a ton to go on here given his limited chances in college, but as you’d expect for a Falcons addition at WR, he doesn’t have eye-popping size but carries a reputation as a hard worker and has quality athleticism. Like Zaccheaus and the next guy on this list, he’s probably pushing for the practice squad in year one.

WR Kahlil Lewis, undrafted rookie

Our own Kevin Knight described Lewis’s style as “smooth.” The rookie is about the same size as Devin Gray and followed him to Atlanta from Cincinnati, and he’s fresh off a 56 reception, 782 yard, 9 touchdown senior season there. With strong speed, good hands, and solid size to his name, Lewis should push Gray and Blake for a spot as a receiver stash on the practice squad. Remember, Justin Hardy is a free agent after this year and Mohamed Sanu is entering the final year of his deal, so anyone who can develop for a year and show value as a receiver could be in play for a role as soon as 2020.

The winner is...

I fully expect Green to win the day here. He’s the sole draft pick on the list, he’s an extremely interesting player who can fill many roles both on offense and specials teams, and he has the kind of speed offensive coordinators fall in love with. His chief competition for a spot will likely be Bane and maybe Zaccheaus if he can get a long look on special teams over the summer. Teams value matters when you’re the last guy on the depth chart, as we all know.

For practice squad spots—and don’t be surprised if the Falcons again fill two with receivers—the frontrunners are likely Zaccheaus, Gray and Lewis here in the early going, given that the former could develop into a dangerous catch-and-run weapon with versatility, and the latter two have intriguing upside as pass catchers. It should be a worthwhile competition this summer regardless of how it spins out.