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Falcons post-draft roster preview: Wide receiver edition

I prayed to the football gods while writing this review, for reasons you can all guess.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The wide receiver position for the Falcons hasn’t been a position of need for quite some time, but it’s one of those positions where it doesn’t hurt to continue to add talent on a yearly basis to keep the group solid from top to bottom. The Falcons have been doing that, but considering that there’s quite a bit of cap that’s invested into the wide receiver group, there could be a shake up by the new regime to alleviate a cap crunch.

The big elephant in the room is what happens with Julio Jones this offseason, something we’re all sick of thinking about. Julio is still arguably the best receiver in the game, but he also has a big cap hit this season. The hope is that somehow he is kept on the roster, but the Falcons have another star at the position at Calvin Ridley and this group looks promising moving forward for coach Arthur Smith one way or the other.

Let’s take a deeper look at the Falcons wide receiver group after the draft.

Starters

Julio Jones

2020 Stats: 51 receptions, 771 yards, 3 TDs

Going into his 11th season, Julio still is a physical marvel at the position. Former GM Thomas Dimitroff gave up quite a bit to trade up to the 6th overall pick to get Jones, and he hasn’t disappointed since he’s been a Falcon.

Last season was an injury-shortened year, so unfortunately it is about that time where the subject of Julio’s future as a Falcon has to be discussed. The hope is that he remains on the roster through the 2021 season, but it now has to be under consideration that he could possibly be traded for cap reasons. If he’s here and healthy, he’s a difference maker and still probably the best receiver on the roster.

Calvin Ridley

2020 Stats: 90 receptions, 1,374 yards, 9 TDs

Going into his 4th season, Ridley has proven that he’s a star in the league at the position. A superb route runner with elusiveness and speed, Ridley would be a WR1 on any other team, so if needed, he can certainly take over at that spot.

Many were concerned about Ridley’s age when he was drafted in 2018, but truthfully, there’s no reason to be. Due to Ridley’s skillset, he’s certainly primed to have a long career, as he’ll only get better as his route running will become more nuanced. Fontenot and company have already picked up his 5th year option, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they extended Ridley before that contract kicks in. He’s one of the team’s elite players now and in the future.

Russell Gage

2020 Stats: 72 receptions, 786 yards, 4 TDs

Gage has certainly been a pleasant surprise for the Falcons at WR. A 6th round pick out of the 2018 NFL Draft, Gage has carved out a role on offense and has certainly outplayed his draft status. I was a big fan of this pick then because Gage is a football player, period.

Gage started out on special teams, but has also built a great relationship with Matt Ryan and has diligently worked on his route running and his hands to become a reliable receiver. Oh, how I wish he’d take less chances in the open field given the potential for injury, but his toughness is undeniable and he should still have a considerable role this year.

Reserves

Olamide Zacchaeus

2020 Stats: 20 receptions, 274 yards, 1 TD

An UDFA(Undrafted Free Agent) by the Falcons in 2019, Zacchaeus is an explosive athlete with amazing speed, which was evident in his first career TD catch of 93 yards against the Carolina Panthers. In the games he’s appeared for the Falcons, he’s proven to be a deep threat and can be dangerous in space with his short area quickness.

Outside of showing special teams value, If he continues to work on his hands and route running, Zacchaeus can prove to be a valuable asset for the Falcons.

Christian Blake

2020 Stats: 13 receptions, 141 yards, 0 TD

Another UDFA by the Falcons in 2018, Blake provided some much needed depth in 2020 as a result of injuries to Jones. He saw action in 9 games in 2020 and had a career high 6 catches for 57 yards against the New Orleans Saints in week 13. Depending on how many WR’s Coach Smith decides to keep on the roster, he could face some stiff competition to carve out a roster spot.

Chris Rowland

Yet another UDFA by the Falcons in 2020, Rowland’s status with the Falcons is certainly one to watch. A shifty and explosive punt and kick returner from Tennessee State, Rowland was stashed on the Falcons Practice Squad by the previous regime. However, given that Fontenot and crew not only signed Cordarrelle Patterson to the roster, but added Avery Williams in the 5th round of the 2021 NFL draft, it could be tough sledding for Rowland to make the active roster.

Frank Darby

An infectious personality who excels at bringing in the deep ball, Darby was selected in the 6th round of the NFL draft. Darby has plenty to work on in regards to his intermediate route running, but he plays with amazing toughness, he has good size and he’s highly competitive. It’s really hard not to like this guy coming out of college.

He will have to likely earn his keep on special teams, but Darby will absolutely be one to keep an eye on in camp as he could not only earn a spot on the final 53, but see some playing time in the 2021 season.

Outlook

With Julio, this group is one of the best in the NFL. Without him, it’s less deep, but Ridley is an elite player, Gage is a good one, and there’s some promising young talent here. We’ll see have to see what happens next, but Atlanta’s in pretty good shape regardless.