The Falcons are, despite all the options afforded to them this offseason, a team likely to be in search of wide receiver depth. When you have Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage as your top three options, you’re obviously in pretty great shape at the top of the depth chart. When you have very few proven options signed and ready to go behind them, and with Julio entering a stage of his career where injuries and slowdown are probably inevitable to some extent, the need for a high-upside reserve who could be a starter if called upon is evident.
First, the depth picture. Let’s say, for a moment, that Atlanta re-signs Brandon Powell and Christian Blake and retain Chris Rowland. That would leave them with a logjam on paper at the receiver position, but very few proven players. Olamide Zaccheaus has flashed but not consistently, Blake was a favorite of the last regime who has struggled to produce when thrown in the game, Powell was an intermittently useful returner and receiver, and Rowland just hasn’t had much of a shot to prove anything.
Again, you’d ideally draft or sign someone who could slot in as a fourth receiver here, but if the new coaching stuff loves Zaccheaus you could credibly pick up someone who offers more special teams value and a proven track record. Because the draft is further away and Atlanta likely won’t be shy about spending for players they like, let’s take a look at some potential affordable #4 and #5 options in free agency for this Atlanta team.
The fit here is beyond obvious. Let’s say the Falcons don’t love Powell or Rowland as returners for this football team. That would mean former assistant Lions special teams coach and current Falcons special teams coordinator Marquice Williams might push hard to re-unite with Jamal Agnew, which could probably be done for a semi-affordable price.
Agnew was brilliant last year as a returner, averaging 12.7 yards per punt and and 28 yards per kick return, compared to Powell’s 8.9 yards per punt return and 20.2 yards per kick return. He was about as effective as Powell as a receiver, too, picking up 89 yards on 13 receptions versus Powell’s 68 yards on 12 receptions, albeit with two touchdowns. As a fifth or sixth receiver with Pro Bowl-caliber return chops, Agnew’s fit is easy to envision and Williams seems likely to push hard to get him.
Given opportunities, Moore has been a consistently productive wide receiver. Over the past three years in Seattle, he’s managed 78 receptions for 1,1163 yards and 13 touchdowns while playing around 45% of the offensive snaps every season. Last year he caught nearly 75% of his targets and was even used occasionally as a runner out of the backfield, piling up 61 yards on 8 carries.
Moore doesn’t wow you with any one facet of his game, but he’s a good route runner, solid blocker and possesses quality speed and size. He’s also just 26 years old and would be an affordable addition who has some experience playing special teams, making him a very credible fourth receiver for this offense.
A speedy and capable deep threat, Higgins averaged 16.2 yards per reception in 2020 in the Browns offense, putting up 37 receptions, 599 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. He’ll be 27 this coming year and has reliably produced when the coaching staff gives him the opportunity to do so, and that speed would play well for Atlanta.
The biggest knock on Higgins is that he has had zero special teams value to this point in his career. Where Agnew is a fantastic returner and Moore has pretty reliably played 25-50% of the special teams snaps in a given morning, Higgins has barely played there, which might need to change as Atlanta’s fourth receiver.
Quick and dangerous after the catch, McKenzie was used primarily as an option on short routes that he was then able to turn into longer gains. In 2020, his 30 catches traveled a total of 92 yards in the air, but he turned those into 282 total receiving yards, averaging 6.3 yards after the catch per reception. If Atlanta is interested in using Julio, Ridley and Gage more downfield and want a reliable, experienced outlet, McKenzie would fit the bill.
McKenzie also has some experience as both a punt and kick returner, including an 84 yard punt return for a touchdown in 2020. Like Higgins, though, he barely played on special teams last season.
I liked what we saw from Treadwell on limited snaps last year, as he proved to be a capable red zone target once he finally got on the roster. Treadwell would compete for the fourth receiver gig again and might fare better under a new coaching staff, with his size, solid blocking and red zone value allowing him to plug in capably if that’s a role this team feels it needs.
If the team doesn’t wind up retaining Powell and can’t get Agnew, Mickens would be an affordable competitor for the kick and punt returner gigs and solid, sure-handed fifth or sixth option in the passing game. We are, as you can tell, getting into options who would not be a sure thing to bring tremendous value to the offense.
Brown was pressed into action a bit for Dallas this past year and managed 14 receptions for 154 yards. He possesses good size for the position, has reliably been a factor on special teams for Dallas, and will only be 25 years old in 2021. He’d be a nice flier for the fifth receiver gig if Atlanta’s not in love with their in-house options.
A pure flier. Ross was drafted in part for his insane speed, but he’s played in just 27 games over four seasons and is one of the most injury-plagued players in the NFL. He played in 21 of those games between 2018 and 2019 and showed his potential those two years, putting up 49 receptions, 716 yards, and 10 touchdowns in that span. If the Falcons signed him, they’d be looking to see if he could stay healthy and provide speed and lethality as a fourth or fifth receiver, but it’d be a guarantee-light contract.
UPDATE: Taylor Gabriel
I didn’t even register that Gabriel was a free agent when I made this list, or the former Falcon and Bear would’ve wound up here as a potential signing given his connections to Atlanta players and coaches both old and new. It turns out that’s because he wasn’t appearing on Spotrac’s list of 2021 free agent receivers because he was released by Chicago ahead of the 2020 season and opted out due to COVID-19 concerns, despite reportedly getting offers from teams.
Gabriel’s experience with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, wide receivers coach Dave Brock and new offensive coordinator Dave Ragone means he’ll probably at least pique the team’s interest. Gabriel caught 29 balls for 353 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2019 and remains a useful player, but he enjoyed his most eye-popping campaign (35 grabs, 579 yards, 6 touchdowns) under Kyle Shanahan in 2016. Arthur Smith can certainly find snaps for him in an offense with some real similarities given his speed, which was so lethal for that juggernaut Falcons offense under Shanny.
But it’s also worth noting that Gabriel seems pretty confident he’s going to land back in Atlanta, which means he’d belong on the list even if he didn’t have that track record.
U left me out I'm coming back to the A— Taylor Gabriel (@TGdadon1) February 14, 2021
Who else would you add to this list?