Russell Gage doesn’t seem the type to rest on his laurels, but I think it’s fair to say he’s already a success. A sixth round pick drafted primarily for his special teams value, Gage earned the attention of wide receivers coach Dave Brock and then took the opportunity afforded to him by the Mohamed Sanu trade in 2019 and ran with it, finishing last season with career-best marks in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
In the past decade plus, do you know how many receivers have had even one season with more than 700 yards and were drafted in the sixth round? It’s just Gage, Darren Waller (who moved to tight end before his career took off), Quincy Enunwa and Antonio Brown. If you go all the way back to 2008, you can add Pierre Garcon.
So Gage doesn’t have to prove he’s a quality receiver, then. But after carving out a major role as this team’s slot receiver over the past 1.5 years, everything changed dramatically. Julio Jones is gone, there’s a brand new coaching staff in town, and Kyle Pitts is here, and nobody but Calvin Ridley and Pitts is necessarily a slam dunk to have a massive role among Atlanta’s pass catchers. All of those changes raise questions about Gage’s role in this offense, and given that this is a contract year for him, those are questions I’m sure he’s keen to answer with “a major role.”
I wrote the other day about how this is Calvin Ridley’s show now, and Ridley’s got the fifth year option and likely a long deal coming from the Falcons. For Gage, this is the end of his rookie contract, and what he does in 2021 will help determine what kind of deal he lands next in Atlanta or elsewhere. It’ll be more of a question of what he does with his opportunity than how sizeable his role is, as early indications suggest he’s likely to function as the team’s #2 receiver, even if it’s readily evident Pitts will be #2 in targets if all goes well. While he predominantly played in the slot last year, Michael Rothstein at ESPN notes that Arthur Smith is already talking about varying Gage’s role more this year.
“Russ has done a nice job in the slot, but we’ll move Russ all over the place and then we got to make a decision as we get closer to the season, all right, we’re giving him a shot here,” Falcons first-year coach Arthur Smith said. “He’s done well. He’s grown his game. Done this with a lot of players and everybody’s on a different timeline.
“So we envision Russ playing multiple spots.”
The dearth of options on the roster today for a prominent role opposite Calvin Ridley—Tajae Sharpe, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake and Frank Darby figure to be Gage’s primary competition for the role—means we may see a healthy dose of Gage outside. Sharpe was a fine player for Smith in Tennessee back in 2019 but is coming off an invisible year with Minnesota, while Darby and to a lesser extent Zaccheaus and Blake have not yet had the chance to prove they can run with a major role outside and excel. We’re bullish on Darby and OZ here, but not expecting either one to seize a role in this offense that’s more prominent than the team’s #5 or #6 target.
The fact that Gage has done his best and most consistent in the slot means Arthur Smith will likely still provide him with a role there, but barring Sharpe, Darby or OZ catching fire this summer and/or the new coaching staff determining Gage can’t be effective with more time outside, he’s likely to play a significant role in multiple spots. If Smith is a man of his word, we’ll see Pitts and to a lesser extent Hurst operating out of a variety of roles—it’s worth remembering that Hurst was in the slot last year and will likely find time there again, as will Pitts—but putting the best group of receivers on the field means prominent snaps for Ridley, Gage, Hurst, and Pitts regardless of where they line up. It would be a surprise for Gage not to operate as a starter, even if he finds himself playing a smaller role in the slot than he was used to under Dirk Koetter, because he’s shown himself to be a very reliable short-to-intermediate option, he’s fine blocker, and the team has not really even tapped into his potential as a deep threat to this point.
Despite Smith’s words, we don’t yet know exactly what kind of role Gage will play. Barring any major additions to this receiving corps over the next couple of months, it will be a significant one. If he can take advantage of the the attention defenses are going to lob at Ridley and Pitts, there’s at least an outside chance he can put up career-best numbers for the fourth year in a row in a crucial contract year. If this offense is really going to hum, Gage will have to, as well.