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Falcons post-2020 roster review: WR edition

Atlanta heads into the 2021 season with a strong wide receiver group, albeit one with some question marks.

Atlanta Falcons v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s time to keep our forward-looking roster review rolling with wide receiver. The quarterback position features some uncertainty because we don’t know if the Falcons are drafting a quarterback just yet and the running back position badly needs an infusion of talent, so I’m happy to say that the receiving corps offers a much more positive outlook.

The Falcons had a frustrating tendency to struggle to get receivers open in 2020, something that the offensive scheme almost certainly played a major role in, but I thought on balance the group played well this past season. They were able to (eventually) put quality efforts together without Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage enjoyed easily their best years yet. Besides Julio’s health and some questions about depth, this team feels like they’re in pretty good shape at wide receiver.

Let’s get into the review.

Starters

Calvin Ridley

2020 Stats: 143 targets, 90 receptions, 1,374 yards, 15.3 yards per reception, 9 touchdowns, 62.9% catch rate; 5 rushing attempts, 1 yard, 0.2 yards per attempt, 1 fumble

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2022; if 5th year option is picked up, UFA in 2023

Ridley is heading for a massive payday soon after putting together one of the best single seasons in Falcons history. With a sputtering offense and Julio Jones missing several weeks, Ridley became the primary option in the passing game throughout much of the year and delivered again and again. His 15.3 yards per reception tied Julio Jones in 2014 for the highest in franchise history with 90 or more receptions, a testament to both how many big plays he made and how often he was able to beat his man deep. Ridley’s refined route running makes him dangerous and his speed makes him lethal, and this was the season where he absolutely confirmed he can be a top option in any NFL passing attack.

He’s under contract for next year and likely for 2022 if the Falcons exercise his fifth-year option, something they’d only pass up if they already had a long term deal with Ridley in hand. If Julio Jones is healthy and with the team next year, Atlanta effectively has two #1 receivers, which should delight whoever the next offensive coordinator winds up being. There’s not much more to say about Ridley’s season because we’ve already said it: He’s the real deal, he’ll be tremendous again in 2021, and the Falcons are lucky to have him.

Julio Jones

2020 Stats: 68 targets, 51 receptions, 771 yards, 15.1 yards per reception, 3 touchdowns, 75% catch rate

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2024

In the games he figured in, Julio was as great as ever. He was on pace for well over 1,000 yards yet again and was still, with the exception of a couple of games where he was clearly slowed, the fearsome defense destroyer the Falcons have relied on all these years.

The problem for the soon-to-be 32 year old (his birthday’s in February), injuries sapped him of his usual effectiveness in a couple of games and cost him five games in total in 2020. Injury has long been the bogeyman for Jones, a player who is perpetually dinged up but rarely misses any time with those ailments, but for all the fretting over his foot post-2013 he’s cashed in dominant season after dominant season regardless of how injured he is. When he was healthy this year, as I mentioned above, Julio didn’t show signs of really slowing down. The offense also once again struggled mightily without him for a while until Dirk Koetter and company were able to get things rolling late in the year with Ridley and Russell Gage.

Julio’s outlook going into 2021 is clouded by the trade speculation surrounding him and questions of whether those injuries will continue to cost him games as he ages. There has been nothing concrete to this point to suggest the Falcons will actually consider moving the future Hall of Famer—Arthur Blank has indicated he’ll allow his new front office to make any moves they deem necessary, but that’s because he’s been peppered with questions about it—and there’s not even a new general manager in town to speak to that yet. Given the cap charges associated with doing so, I’m going to file that one under unlikely, but we can’t entirely rule it out just yet.

The second point is more germane. Julio’s one of the hardest-working receivers in football and his skills are not slipping, so the only question is whether he’ll be on the field for 15 or 15 games next year. That’s another thing that’s impossible to know, but the hope for Atlanta will be that Julio gets healthy in the offseason and doesn’t have the same kind of trouble next year. As good as Ridley is, having Julio out there with him at the same time could be the difference between a very good passing attack and an elite one, so all we can do is cross our fingers.

Russell Gage

2020 Stats: 109 targets, 72 receptions, 786 yards, 10.9 yards per reception, 4 touchdowns, 66.1% catch rate; 2 carries, 9 yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 1 fumble; 2 passing attempts, 1 completion, 50% completion percentage, 39 yards, 1 touchdown pass

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2022

There was a lot of grumbling this offseason about Gage replacing the beloved Mohamed Sanu, but Gage proved more than up to the task. As a receiver, as a blocker, and even as a quarterback Gage enjoyed a successful year, overcoming a quiet stretch earlier in the year to deliver as the team’s second receiver down the stretch.

I don’t know what the team’s long-term plans will be for Gage—there’s a new coaching staff on the way, after all—but like Ridley he showed he can deliver for this offense even if Julio’s not playing. He can run the ball in a pinch, he blocks well and got better at helping out in th run game in 2020, and would’ve been a perfect 2 for 2 with 2 touchdowns had Julio come down with his first deep shot of the year. As a receiver, which despite all the fun extras is the core of his job, Gage showed his typical fearlessness over the middle and on the sideline, throwing in a few of his famous leaps over defenders in the process. As a #3 receiver in this offense, he feels like a great fit for any incoming coordinator, because he has the wheels to challenge defenders deep but also has an established track record of production on shorter routes.

That emergence as a bright spot in this offense matters because the Falcons are less settled beyond him on the depth chart, and because Gage’s contract will be up after this year. If he puts together another quality season in 2021 with the new coaching staff, I’d expect a long-term deal in the offing.

Olamide Zaccheaus

2020 Stats: 32 targets, 20 receptions, 274 yards, 13.7 yards per reception, 1 touchdown, 62.5% catch rate; 1 carry, 0 yards

Contract Status: Restricted free agent in 2023

Zaccheaus mixed in some genuinely impressive efforts—most notably an 8 grab, 86 yard week against the Packers and 4 catch, 103 yard torching of the Panthers—with a couple of less pretty efforts that featured missed connections in the end zone. He wound up finishing the year on injured reserve, unfortunately, so we didn’t get to see what he would’ve done with a full season of work.

What we do know is that Zaccheaus is capable of beating defenders deep—he’s caught one of Matt Ryan’s longest passes ever and added a 52 yard grab this year—and is quick enough to be an interesting weapon for the next offensive coordinator. It’s trickier to figure out where he’ll wind up on the depth chart, especially if the Falcons draft another receiver, but he’s shown enough to stick and could push for a returner gig next year with that role unsettled.

Christian Blake

2020 Stats: 18 targets, 13 receptions, 141 yards, 10.8 yards per reception, 72.2% catch rate

Contract Status: Exclusive rights free agent in 2021

Blake went into the year as the fourth receiver on the depth chart, but practically speaking he wasn’t targeted like it. Zaccheaus, Brandon Powell, and later on Laquon Treadwell were higher priorities in the passing game for Atlanta in 2020, and the coaching staff that was very fond of him is likely headed out the door this offseason.

That leaves Blake likely competing for a role in 2021, and there’s likely to be a lot of competition. Blake is a competent receiver with good hands and might find new life in a different offensive coordinator’s attack, but I don’t think you can count on anything besides the team re-signing him since he’ll be an affordable ERFA.

Brandon Powell

2020 Stats: 18 targets, 12 receptions, 69 yards, 5.8 yards per reception, 2 touchdowns, 66.7% catch rate; 2 carries, 7 yards, 3.5 yards per carry, 2 fumbles

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2021

Statistically, Powell had a profoundly weird year. He went through a brief stretch where Matt Ryan seemed to favor him on short routes, and he also snagged two touchdown passes this year. On the flip side, he was not much of a factor as the team’s returner throughout much of the year and he had two fumbles, so it was an uneven year for a guy who swung between being the fourth and sixth guy on the depth chart depending on the week.

Because Powell is a free agent, because the Falcons have a bunch of options at receiver, and because he was fairly quiet as a returner, I would expect him to be looking elsewhere for work in 2021. He did put some good moments on tape for his next team to consider.

Laquon Treadwell

2020 Stats: 7 targets, 6 receptions, 49 yards, 8.2 yards per reception, 2 touchdowns, 85.7% catch rate

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2021

Treadwell spent most of the year on the practice squad, but in his five games with the Falcons he managed to do some good stuff. He caught almost all of his targets, picked up a pair of touchdowns where he showed his physicality and quality hands, and generally looked like a player the Falcons might want to consider bringing back in 2021 to compete for a role.

Outlook: Very good, but with question marks

Calvin Ridley’s emergence, Russell Gage’s strong year, and the presence of Olamide Zaccheaus plus ability to easily re-sign Christian Blake, Brandon Powell, and/or Laquon Treadwell sets the Falcons up to have an excellent set of top receivers and solid depth. If the Falcons just ran it back I’d feel confident about their ability to field a quality passing attack next year. They’ve done a nice job of drafting high (Julio, Ridley), drafting late (Gage), and finding undrafted free agents and affordable free agents (the rest).

The chief questions here are what a new offensive coordinator is going to want—there could be different veterans and/or a draft pick coming in to bolster the team’s depth—and whether Julio will be fully healthy next year. The first might impact Gage and the team’s backup, but the second impacts the entire offense because Matt Ryan is obviously going to fare better in anybody’s offense if he has #11 and #18 on the field at the same time. It’s a good group either way, but if the Falcons aren’t confident they’ll have Julio for the majority of their 2021 games they’re almost certainly going to add one more guy this spring. There were too many games where Atlanta struggled to get receivers open, and I’m not sure we can lay 100% of that at the feet of Dirk Koetter.