Russell Gage is an expert. His bow hunting skills? Solid. His version of eggs benedict? Not too shabby. His penmanship? Definitely above average. But his true expertise: waiting for an opportunity.
Gage only started at LSU for a single season, his senior campaign. He’d pull in a whopping 26 catches during his time in Baton Rouge. He wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, nor was he included on a Senior Bowl roster. A resume like that isn’t likely to draw interest from NFL scouts, even if you played at an SEC school that churns out NFL players.
But the Falcons front office effectively read between the lines when they zeroed in on Gage in the lead up to the 2018 NFL Draft, thanks in large part to an exceptional pro day. Scouts took note of the fact that he was the victim of an anemic passing attack, hanging their hat on his athleticism, raw talent, and the real possibility that his collegiate career wasn’t indicative of his ceiling as a pro. Fast forward a couple of years and Gage is now everyone’s favorite “breakout candidate” for 2020. What changed?
Gage has quietly flown under the radar over the last two years, and to be frank, that’s not a bad thing. He had to navigate the learning curve, putting in his time as a special teams gunner. He isn’t the first NFL player to go from late round draft pick to niche special teamer to reliable contributor on offense. He doesn’t care if uninformed pundits question the Falcons’ wide receiver depth, and you shouldn’t either.
The genesis of the hype that’s surrounding Gage should be familiar territory. The Falcons got their act together and figured out how to resemble a professional football team during 2019’s second half, and Gage played a big part in making that happen. Through Week 7 of the 2019 season, Gage had seen only 8 targets on offense (4 receptions). Then he broke out big in Week 8, racking up 7 receptions on 9 targets. Gage was targeted 66 times between Week 8 and Week 17, pulling in 45 receptions. In short, it clicked. So the excitement about what Gage can accomplish in 2020 shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Gage’s history suggests he is ready for an expanded role. He seamlessly went from playing only 6 percent of the Falcons’ offensive snaps as a rookie in 2018 to playing a whopping 44 percent of the offensive snaps last season. And let’s put that in context: Justin Hardy, no longer with the Falcons, only played 17 percent of the offensive snaps last season, despite playing in all 16 games. The departure of Mohamed Sanu via trade to New England certainly helped Gage’s cause as well. He is now the Falcons’ preferred option in the slot, and that’s not by mistake. He earned that designation—it wasn’t handed to him.
This is the NFL, where players have nice little runs and then fade into obscurity on a regular basis. So it’s possible that Gage’s 2019 second half was just a flash in the pan. But I wouldn’t bet on that possibility if I were you.