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Falcons post-2019 roster review, WR edition

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Atlanta’s in good shape at the position but are unlikely to stand pat.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

As was the case with most of the roster, injuries and moves caused some flux with the Falcons receiving corps. Unlike most other positions, the receiver group weathered things fairly well.

At the very least, the trade of Mohamed Sanu did not tank the offense, with Russell Gage stepping up and doing a solid job in his stead. Throw in Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus getting some run late in the year, plus the ongoing presence of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and this group has a nice mix of production and promise.

Let’s review.

Starters

WR Julio Jones

2019 stats: 16 games, 157 targets, 99 receptions, 1,394 yards, 14.1 yards per reception, 6 touchdowns, 92.9 yards per game, 63.1% catch rate, 18.9 yards per target; 2 rushing attempts, -3 yards

Contract: Locked up until 2023

Julio is one of the best, if not the best, at what he does for a variety of reasons. The most encouraging one is that even as he ages into his 30s, he remains a master of his craft.

In a shaky 2019 season for the offense overall, Julio’s numbers suffered a little. He had his lowest yardage total since 2013, lowest receptions since 2017, lowest yards per catch since 2015, and so on. For perspective’s sake, he was 6th in the NFL in receptions, 2nd in yards, 3rd in yards per game, and tied for 24th for touchdowns with guys like Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Keenan Allen. He was playing at a pretty elite level in 2019, in other words, with touchdowns as always the thing earning him the scorn of fantasy players the world over. He also more than halved his drops this year from last year on just 13 fewer targets.

He battled through injuries, a handful of weird throws from Matt Ryan, and the loss of compelling second options like Austin Hooper and Calvin Ridley to still put together a great season. He did so by running stellar routes, out-muscling cornerbacks for balls, and occasionally just getting to a ball only Julio could get to. There will come a day when he can no longer be an all-world receiver and won’t be able to basically carry the passing game himself, but that day hasn’t arrived, and thus the Falcons are at least in decent shape offensively in 2020.

WR Calvin Ridley

2019 Stats: 13 games, 93 targets, 63 receptions, 866 yards, 13.7 yards per reception, 7 receiving touchdowns, 66.6 yards per game, 67.7% catch rate, 9.3 yards per target; 2 carries, 34 yards, 17.0 yards per carry

Contract: 2 years remaining; fifth-year option for 2022

Ridley has quietly put together a terrific start to his Falcons career. Here’s his numbers the first two years stacked up against Julio:

Ridley: 127 receptions, 1,687 yards, 13.3 yards per reception, 17 touchdowns, 68.6% catch rate, 58.2 yards per game, 9.1 yards per target

Julio: 133 receptions, 2,057 yards, 16.5 yards per reception, 18 touchdowns, 58% catch rate, 74.5 yards per game, 9.8 yards per target

He’s not Julio’s equal, but he’s a very good receiver who should be here a long time. Injury was the only thing that really kept Ridley from having an elite year, given that he was tracking for 1,000 yards and potentially double digit touchdowns, and he, Julio, and Hooper are a difficult trio to stop.

Going forward, I’m hoping Ridley becomes someone the team feels more comfortable bombing it to, given his speed and ability to get open downfield. There are few holes in his game, though, and entering his third year he and Julio ought to be one of the best duos in the NFL.

WR Russell Gage

2019 stats: 16 games, 74 targets, 49 receptions, 446 yards, 9.1 yards per reception, 1 receiving touchdown, 27.9 yards per game, 66.2% catch rate, 6.0 yards per target; 4 carries, 12 yards, 3.0 yards per carry

Contract: 2 years remaining

Gage is extremely fast. Before Mohamed Sanu was traded, I thought his best chance of contributing to the offense was as an occasional deep threat, given that speed, and looked forward to him getting those shots in Dirk Koetter’s offense.

What I didn’t expect was that Gage was going to become the team’s de facto possession receiver, a guy the team trusted to get open over the middle over and over and over again. That’s just what Gage did, though, making impressive strides in his route running in year two, displaying good hands, and occasionally making players miss. He was hardly targeted deep at all, something I do hope changes next year.

Overall, though, Gage’s season was impressive just because it was far from a lock he’d have a role on offense at all. Long-term he’s probably the fourth receiver here with a draft pick joining Julio and Ridley, but he’s shown enough to get more opportunities, regardless of where he is on the depth chart. He does need to stop trying to hurdle defenders, though, lest he gets hurt doing so.

WR Christian Blake

2019 stats: 9 games, 24 targets, 11 receptions, 91 yards, 8.3 yards per reception, 10.1 yards per game, 45.8% catch rate, 3.8 yards per target

Contract: 1 year remaining

Most of the young receivers who got an opportunity this year impressed in those opportunities. Christian Blake looked poised to join Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus in that regard, especially after he scooped up 6 catches for 57 yards and gave the Saints fits in Week 13, giving New Orleans corners trouble in the process. Over the last five weeks of the season, he averaged well over half of the offensive snaps, giving him a big opportunity to prove his mettle.

That didn’t happen, and we’re left to wonder how much of a chance Blake will get next year. It’s hard to overstate what an afterthought Blake was in the offense those final weeks of the season, even as he averaged 70% of the offensive snaps over the three final weeks. He received just three targets in that entire time and caught zero of them, and when you saw Matt Ryan desperately scanning the field looking for an open man, Blake was rarely one of them.

He’s still quite young and the coaching staff clearly loved the work he put in over the summer, so that plus the potential departure of Justin Hardy ought to give him another bite at the #5 receiver gig this this year. It just wasn’t the most productive audition for that job at the end of 2019.

WR Justin Hardy

2019 stats: 16 games, 26 targets, 19 receptions, 195 yards, 10.3 yards per reception, 10.1 yards per game, 73.1% catch rate, 7.5 yards per target

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

A year ago under Steve Sarkisian, Justin Hardy played just under 21% of all snaps on offense and 36% on special teams. This year, he was under 17% on the former and 22% on special teams. If you sensed that he was phased out a bit this year, you’re not imagining things, something that became especially evident once Mohamed Sanu was traded and Russell Gage and Christian Blake leapfrogged him on the depth chart.

For all that, Hardy did his usual productive work as a receiver with his limited opportunities, cashing in the third-highest receiving yardage total of his career. He remains a stellar blocker at the position but found less work doing that this season with Dirk Koetter aboard, and I’m not at all certain the team is going to bring him back in free agency this time around. The Gage and Blake elevations certainly suggested that.

Hardy hasn’t changed, though, and the things he does are still valuable for this offense, especially with Sanu gone. If the Falcons want their fifth receiver to be a guy who can make tough catches and block, they’ll strongly consider Hardy again.

WR Olamide Zaccheaus

2019 stats: 10 games, 5 targets, 3 receptions, 115 yards, 38.3 yards per reception, 11.5 yards per game, 60% catch rate, 23.0 yards per target

Contract: 2 years remaining

Zaccheaus was a player I liked a lot throughout the summer, but his opportunity didn’t come until very late in the season. His 93 yards grab from Matt Ryan was a feat of route running, awareness, and pure speed that we don’t get to see very often, and it’s that play that will help determine his fortunes with this team in 2020 and beyond.

If he can show versatility and promise as a deep threat after that catch, he can likely latch on to one of the last spots on the roster again this year. I wouldn’t bet against him.

WR Brandon Powell

2019 stats: N/A

Contract: ERFA

Powell is, like Zaccheaus, a speedy dude without ideal height. He snagged 11 passes for 129 yards for the Lions in 2018 and will be competing with Blake, Devin Gray, and Zaccheaus for a role in 2020.

WR Devin Gray

2019 stats: N/A

Contract: Reserve/future signed for 2020

Gray was once the more heralded receiver than Blake, but Blake got the call-up and the opportunity first. Gray’s had some product in preseason and will try to fight his way onto the end of an unsettled receiving group.

Outlook: Good

The Falcons don’t have the same problem at wide receiver that they have at running back. Julio Jones is an elite talent still playing at a high level, Calvin Ridley has the talent to be a top option in this league, and Russell Gage is at worst a terrific chain mover and fourth receiver. That plus some interesting young depth leaves this team a compelling third option short of an elite grouping, but it’s good enough to keep this offense humming right along, assuming play calling and quarterback play cooperate.

If Gage can take another step forward and someone like Blake or Zaccheaus becomes even an intermittently useful threat, the Falcons will be in very good shape over the near-term, and will deserve a lot of praise for the receivers they’ve dug up in later rounds and as undrafted free agents in recent years. Given how many Brandyn Harveys and Bernard Reedys have passed through the halls of Flowery Branch, that’s no small thing.

Keep an eye on the draft, though, because I think one of the things the Falcons are going to see when they look back on this year is how hard the offense had it at times when the injuries piled up. Koetter would undoubtedly like a receiver he drafted to be a piece of the puzzle here, and beyond Gage no one has been able to get enough playing time and/or targets to show they can be relied upon over the long haul.