Beyond that, there’s a little bit of uncertainty as the Falcons opted against using any draft picks on the WR position this year. They are firmly placing their faith in the depth pieces which were already on the roster going into the draft beyond Julio and Ridley, and that’s a move that could pay dividends.
Though still relatively unproven, Atlanta’s young backups all seem poised to take that next step in their development in 2020.
Let’s take a closer look at the position.
Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley
The Falcons are blessed to still employee the best wide receiver in the game in Julio Jones, who has been selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls and has caught 1,300+ receiving yards in all six of those years (last season, he was just six yards away from extending his streak of 1,400+ receiving yards to six straight years).
Calvin Ridley has proven to be an excellent sidekick, catching 17 touchdown passes in 29 career games two years into his career. An injury which cost him the last quarter of the season is the only thing that stopped Ridley from reaching 1,000 receiving yards in 2019. Going into his third year, Calvin Ridley looks poised to take his spot among the best WR2s in the NFL.
The WR3 Contenders
Last offseason, I wrote an article looking at Gage’s potential at winning Atlanta’s fourth wide receiver spot. One year later and he not only flourished in that role, but he’s now considered the favorite for Atlanta’s starting slot WR role after the team traded Mohamed Sanu last season.
Gage was drafted in the Sixth Round of the 2018 NFL Draft and was looked at as little more than a Special Teams gunner. He always possessed the physical tools to be an effective starting wide receiver but was so new to the position in college (converting from CB in his Junior Year). Gage has finally started putting those tools together, however. He had more receiving yards last season than he did in his entire college career at LSU (446 last year vs. 347 in college).
Another thing that Gage has going for him is his excellent run blocking - Julio Jones was the only WR on Atlanta’s roster last season with a higher PFF run blocking grade.
Unlike Gage, who was selected late on Day 3 of the draft, Treadwell was looked at as arguably the best WR in his 2016 Draft Class and was a Day 1 selection as a result.
Despite the pedigree and high draft status, however, Treadwell has largely ended up being a disappointment thus far in his NFL career — he has 701 career receiving yards in four seasons and has never had more than 302 yards in a single year (less than what Gage had in year two following a Day 3 draft selection).
The Falcons took a low-risk chance on the Ole Miss alum, giving him a one-year contract worth $910,000 this past offseason in hopes that Matt Ryan can help unlock some of his potential. This could be Treadwell’s last chance in the NFL.
Relatively Secured Roster Spot
An undrafted free agent last offseason, Zaccheaus won Atlanta’s hotly contested preseason battle for the final WR roster spot, and he made the most of his opportunity when he stepped in for an injured Calvin Ridley in Week 14 and secured a 93-yard touchdown reception (the longest play from scrimmage in the league in 2019).
Zaccheaus likely won’t beat out Gage or Treadwell on Atlanta’s WR depth chart, but he did enough in the 2019 preseason and in his limited regular season action to comfortably go into 2020 as the team’s fifth wide receiver.
Final WR spot competitors
Blake, a 2018 UDFA turned practice squad standout, was Zaccheaus’ main competition for that final WR roster spot last preseason. He was promoted to the active roster following the Mohamed Sanu trade and appeared in nine games for the Falcons last season, securing 91 total receiving yards.
Being the only player in this grouping to have actually caught any regular season passes from Matt Ryan last season, Blake will be among the favorites to be this year’s Zaccheaus in winning that final roster spot.
An undrafted free agent from this year’s 2020 crop, Rowland is the most intriguing member of this bunch. Standing at 5’8 and 170 pounds, Rowland doesn’t strike fear into opponents with his physical stature, but he has by far had the most success as a returner among this grouping.
Rowland had over 500 yards and two touchdowns in the return game this past season at Tennessee State and he steps in as the immediate favorite to win the punt/kick returner role. If he proves himself in that role, he’ll win this last roster spot and be active every game day.
Other than Blake, Powell is the only player in this group with regular season NFL experience. He appeared in six games for the Lions in 2018 and had a Week 17 performance where he secured 103 receiving yards against the Packers. That one game, however, represents a massive chunk of his 129 career receiving yards.
Powell was promoted to Atlanta’s active roster in November last year but he didn’t appear in any games. He has experience as a returner himself, returning 49 kickoffs/punts at the University of Florida (and then having four returns with the Lions). The clearest path for Powell (who’s 5’8 himself) to that final roster spot will be to beat out the field for that returner role.
Gray is another one of those WRs who was a contender for that final roster spot last season, and he ended up finishing well behind in the pecking order by the end of that competition. Gray was outright waived following the preseason while Zaccheaus made his way to the active roster, Blake was given a spot on the practice squad, and Powell was an addition from outside of the team’s camp to the practice squad.
It wasn’t until Blake’s promotion to the active roster that Gray was looked at for the practice squad. As a result, he’ll have another chance to compete in this year’s Training Camp/preseason. Boasting no pedigree in the return game and having no prior regular season experience, however, it would seem that Gray will be hard pressed to find himself on Atlanta’s 53-man roster come September.
University at Albany standout Juwan Green came off of a 2019 season where he secured 1,368 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in the FCS. Green’s 40-yard dash time has been hand timed at 4.37, and his athleticism was used to overwhelm inferior FCS competition.
An intriguing prospect who also has next to no return experience (seven career kickoff returns at Albany), Green likely won’t win that final roster spot but he should be a player of intrigue when it comes to the Practice Squad.
A former Oklahoma State turned Tulane receiver, McCleskey has never been overwhelming on the stat sheet (his best season was in 2016 when he secured 812 receiving yards and seven TDs in the Big 12). What is overwhelming about McCleskey, however, is his speed — he ran a 4.28 40-yard dash time at Tulane’s virtual Pro Day this year.
That speed, combined with decent height (5’11), is the reason why McCleskey was looked at as a UDFA. The Tulane alum had some punt return experience at Oklahoma State but he was gradually phased out of that role over time after demonstrating some underwhelming results.
He’ll be an exciting player to watch in this year’s lead-up to the regular season as a result of his speed; but much like Green his audition will likely be one for the Practice Squad.
With Julio and Ridley locked in at WR1 and WR2 on this team, I expect Russell Gage to join them in the starting lineup as far as the primary slot position (or WR3) is concerned. Gage’s continuity with Matt Ryan, as well as his much superior run blocking ability ability in comparison to Laquon Treadwell (whose PFF run blocking grade was 40.2 last year), should see him beat out the former First Round selection for the role he took over following Sanu’s departure last year. I’m expecting another big step forward in Gage’s maturation as a WR this year.
Treadwell should find himself in that WR4 role with the expectation of a lot more playing time if any of the three WRs ahead of him are forced to miss time. Olamide Zaccheaus may have a say in the competition for that role, but Treadwell’s talent should be enough to hold the upstart Zaccheaus off.
Speaking of Zaccheaus, his spot on the 53-man roster should be secured as the WR5 (at minimum) going into the season. He remains an exciting prospect who can hopefully take that Gage trajectory from being an unknown commodity to developing into a capable starting slot WR in the NFL after some time. He’ll also likely be featured in the return competition.
The battle for that final WR spot (the Falcons are unlikely to carry more than six WRs) will be one of the team’s big competitions to look at this preseason. As of right now, I would guess that Chris Rowland will win that spot as a result of winning the return competition.
Christian Blake will be his primary competition for that last spot, and I would expect him to fall into a Practice Squad spot where he’s the first player called up to the 53-man in the event of any WR on the roster going on IR or getting traded.
Of course, however unlikely it may be, the Falcons could possibly opt to carry seven WRs if Rowland dominates as a returner and Blake (or any of the other contenders) dominate to the point where the coaching staff has no choice but to give them a spot on the roster (remember, the Falcons carried five running backs last year, which rarely ever happens, because of Kenjon Barner’s return prowess).
Juwan Green is my dark horse pick to make the Practice Squad as well.