We don’t know exactly what Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone’s offense will look like in 2021 for the Falcons, but there are certain expectations that are quite reasonable to have. There will be more of an emphasis on a consistent ground game, heavy tight end usage, and a passing attack that is based more on efficiency than volume, meaning Matt Ryan’s attempts might plummet but his effectiveness will hopefully rise.
There’s one other expectation that we haven’t spent much time on to this point that seems very reasonable to gird your loins for: The running backs not being a major part of the passing game, at least as receivers.
Earlier this offseason, I suggested that part of the appeal of Mike Davis was his versatility, as he’s a capable blocker and receiver as well as a runner. Taking over for an injured Christian McCaffrey in 2020, after all, Davis was targeted 70 times (4th on the team) and wound up with 59 receptions for 373 yards and 2 touchdowns. proving to be a reliable pass catching option for Teddy Bridgewater out of the backfield. The Falcons then went out and added Cordarrelle Patterson, who has spent most of his career as a nominal receiver and dabbled in the backfield in Chicago, as a listed running back. Rookie Javian Hawkins, already a darling of the fanbase, has all the tools to be a successful pass catching back in this league even if he didn’t get a ton of run as a receiver at Louisville. A coordinator who loves to target backs, like Kyle Shanahan once did with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta, would find plenty to like here.
Nonetheless, it seems likely that Arthur Smith will not exactly prioritize his backs as receiving threats.
History gives us plenty of evidence, as Smith has not prized targeting running backs in the passing game in his work in Tennessee, and with capable tight ends and A.J. Brown at his disposal, it’s hard to blame him for not doing so. The Titans were actually last in the NFL in running back targets in 2020, and in 2019 they were second-to-last, separated by the Rams by a single target. Under Dirk Koetter, the Falcons were 14th in both in 2019 and 2020, and they got more value out of those targets than they did a completely stagnant run game. If you prioritize an efficient passing game, you don’t particularly prioritize passes to running backs, who generally average less per reception than tight ends and far less than receivers.
“Ah,” you say, “but Derrick Henry is not exactly a huge receiving threat!” You’d be right about that, and Smith has promised to tailor his offense to his personnel rather than turning Davis into Henry Lite. But in an offense that might feature Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, Russell Gage, and interesting depth receiving options like Olamide Zaccheaus and Jaeden Graham, I think it’s fair to argue that tailoring your attack to pump passes to Davis and Patterson would be a mistake. Remember, Smith had Dion Lewis in Tennessee, who caught 59 passes on 67 targets in 2018. Once Smith took over as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2019, Lewis got just 32 targets and 19 catches.
It’s not an accident that Ryan Tannehill was among the top 5 in the NFL in terms of yards per attempt and air yards per attempt in each of the last two seasons, leading the league in the former in 2019. Smith and this offense are going to prioritize explosive plays, something he talked about all the time in Tennessee and continues to talk about in Atlanta, and that largely means throwing the ball to Atlanta’s many explosive threats at receiver and tight end.
I’m excited about Mike Davis in this offense, and Patteron and Hawkins will bring deeply intriguing speed to this backfield that should only help them be more creative and effective. Unless Arthur Smith has turned over a new and very unexpected leaf, though, don’t expect any of these guys to be on the receiving end of a lot of Matt Ryan passes in 2021.