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Falcons training camp preview: Wide receiver

With Falcons training camp just around the corner, we take a closer look at Atlanta’s wide receivers. With the departure of Julio Jones and Arthur Smith likely to feature more tight ends, the depth chart could be noticeably different in 2021.

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With just over two weeks to go until the start of the Falcons’ 2021 training camp, it’s time to take a closer look at each of the position groups on the roster. We’ll go through each one, noting the potential starters and the competition for depth roles. We continue our look at Atlanta’s offense with wide receiver, where the Falcons will be without Julio Jones for the first time in a decade but still feature a solid depth chart.

OFFENSE: QB | RB | TE | WR

THE ESTABLISHED STARTERS: Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage

Calvin Ridley

6’1, 190 | 2020 Stats: 90 receptions for 1374 yards (15.3 YPR) and 9 TD

Calvin Ridley proved all the doubters wrong almost immediately upon entering the NFL, making an immediate impact for the Falcons in 2018 and continuing his strong play into 2019. Last season, Ridley had to carry the load with Julio Jones on IR for the second half of the season—and he did not disappoint. Ridley had a career year, with 1374 yards at an incredible 15.3 yards per catch and 9 TDs.

Any notion that Ridley was merely a second fiddle to Julio was dispelled by his excellence in Julio’s absence. Now he’ll be expected to take over the primary WR1 role full time, and there’s no reason to think he’ll falter. His role may change somewhat in Arthur Smith’s more intermediate, play-action heavy passing game—but Ridley is still likely to be one of the most productive receivers in the NFL, and should cement himself as a top-10 player at the position with a strong 2021 season.

Russell Gage

6’0, 185 | 2020 Stats: 72 receptions for 786 yards (10.9 YPR) and 4 TD

Few players benefitted from the transition back to Dirk Koetter at offensive coordinator, but one who did was Russell Gage. Gage took a big step forward in 2019, putting up nearly 50 receptions and 500 yards in only 4 starts. That trend continued in 2020, as Gage seized control of the WR3 role and excelled in the slot. He became one of Matt Ryan’s most trusted targets, particularly on third down, and had a career year with 786 yards and 4 TD.

Gage now enters a contract year in an offense that is not necessarily known for heavily utilizing a slot WR. Arthur Smith’s 2020 offense played 11 personnel (3 WR) on just 38% of snaps, the 2nd-lowest number in the league. That’s still enough snaps for Gage to have a significant role, but he’ll have to show he can take reps on the outside if he wants to replicate anything near his 2020 production.

THE WR3/4/5 BATTLE: Christian Blake, Frank Darby, Tajae Sharpe, Olamide Zaccheaus

The Falcons offense is going to look different under new head coach Arthur Smith, and one the first changes I foresee is keeping just five receivers on the roster. Traditionally, the team has kept six—or even seven, occasionally—on the roster going back to Kyle Shanahan in 2015. That’s likely to change, as Smith generally favors 12 personnel packages (2-TE sets) over 11 personnel (3-WR). The possible exception to this could be the punt returner—if Chris Rowland or Jeff Badet were to win the job over Avery Williams, they’d probably be kept as a sixth receiver.

These are the four players I see as seriously contending for the WR3/4/5 spots on the roster. Obviously, this could all change, as we haven’t seen anyone in training camp yet and don’t fully understand how Arthur Smith plans to construct this offense.

Christian Blake

6’0, 180 | 2020 Stats: 13 receptions for 141 yards (10.8 YPR)

One of the holdovers from the 2020 roster, Christian Blake has managed to carve out a role in the past as a backup to Julio Jones. However, his role in Arthur Smith’s offense is thus far unclear. Blake is fairly average in terms of size and athleticism, and he’s yet to establish himself as anything more than a WR5/6 in the NFL. He’ll have a shot to impress the new staff in camp and has managed to stick with the team for several years, but he’s got a more difficult path to the roster this season.

Frank Darby

6’0, 200 | 2019* Stats (College): 31 receptions for 616 yards (19.9 YPR) and 8 TD

Despite reportedly knowing that Julio Jones would be traded prior to the 2021 NFL Draft, the Falcons chose to invest just a sixth-round pick in the position with Arizona State’s Frank Darby. A curious investment, as Darby appeared in just 2 games in 2020, caught only 6 passes, and doesn’t appear to have a standout athletic profile. However, there’s something about Darby that seems to have caught the staff’s eye, and he’s been one of the most mentioned players at OTAs. Darby should get a fair shot at winning the outside WR job opposite Ridley.

Tajae Sharpe

6’2, 195 | 2020 Stats: N/A

A signing that I liked a bit more than the fan consensus, Tajae Sharpe is a reliable veteran who has shown he can be a solid rotational option in Arthur Smith’s offense. He only saw action in 4 games last season while playing for the Vikings, but Sharpe had a respectable year when he was last with Smith in 2019: 25 receptions for 329 yards (13.2 YPR) and 4 TD. Sharpe brings an element of size that the Falcons are seriously lacking with the departure of Julio Jones, and that could give him a leg up on one of these reserve roles. His experience at both inside and outside receiver also boosts his value.

Olamide Zaccheaus

5’8, 195 | 2020 Stats: 20 receptions for 274 yards (13.7 YPR) and 1 TD

It’s hard to imagine a bigger wild card in the receiver room right now than Olamide Zaccheaus. A fan favorite UDFA signing, Zaccheaus made a name for himself immediately with a 93-yard TD catch in 2019—which also happened to be the first NFL catch of his career. He followed that up with a promising second season in 2020, catching 20 passes for 274 yards (13.7 YPR) and a TD. There’s a tremendous opportunity for Zaccheaus to seize a starting job this season, but he’ll need to show he can win on the outside consistently.

THE PRACTICE SQUAD COMPETITION: Jeff Badet, Juwan Green, Antonio Nunn, Austin Trammell

Jeff Badet

5’11, 182 | 2020 Stats: N/A

Jeff Badet’s calling card is most definitely his speed and explosiveness: an official 4.34s 40 (with rumored times in the high-4.2s), a 39.5” vert, and a 10’11” broad jump. However, Badet went undrafted in 2018 and wound up signing with the Vikings. He stuck around through training camp in 2019, but failed to make the team. After a stint in the XFL (16 receptions for 108 yards), he wound up signing with Washington’s practice squad and made a few appearances on the active roster. He’s had no NFL statistics to this point, but his athleticism is definitely a factor in his favor—the Falcons don’t really have any players who can match his speed. I’d say he’s a long shot to make the roster, but could be a favorite for the practice squad.

Juwan Green

6’0, 187 | 2020 Stats: N/A

Another former practice squad player from the 2020 team, Juwan Green was actually re-signed by the new staff after the 2020 NFL Draft. Green never recorded any NFL statistics in Atlanta, but had a prolific senior year at Albany with 83 receptions for 1386 yards (16.7 YPR) and a whopping 17 TDs. He only started playing football during his senior year of high school, but Green has picked things up quickly and appears to have impressed enough to make it to a second training camp. If I had to pick one player out of this group who had the best chance to surprise and make the roster, it would be Green—he’s got a lot of untapped potential.

Antonio Nunn

5’11, 200 | 2020 Stats (College): 37 receptions for 584 yards (15.8 YPR) and 2 TD

A deep threat with solid size and speed, Antonio Nunn joined the Falcons as a UDFA after the 2021 NFL Draft. Nunn had an impressive final season at Buffalo, where he led the team in receptions and yardage in a COVID-shortened 7 game season. An excellent deep-ball tracker with strong instincts and play at the catch-point, Nunn is very good when he’s running downfield. However, he lacks route running skills at any other level and has had some frustrating issues with drops. Nunn is an intriguing player to watch during the preseason, but he’s likely ticketed to the practice squad in his rookie year.

Chris Rowland

5’7, 180 | 2020 Stats: N/A

Chris Rowland was a training camp darling in 2020, with electric college tape and an obvious vacancy at returner. The job ended up going to veteran Brandon Powell, who was uninspiring at best in the role, and Rowland was relegated to the practice squad. He’s been retained by the new staff, however, which means they see enough in him to give him a chance to compete in camp. His best path to the roster once again lies in winning the punt return job, but he’ll have to beat out new draft pick Avery Williams (who was a very good returner in college as well) and the electric speed of recent free agent addition Jeff Badet.

Austin Trammell

5’10, 185 | 2020 Stats (College): 16 receptions for 335 yards (20.9 YPR) and 6 TD

Another UDFA addition this year, Rice’s Austin Trammell has attracted his fair share of supporters during the draft process. For one, Trammell says he has modeled his game after Wes Welker—and he’s also been compared to players like Julian Edelman and Hunter Renfrow. Trammell is a unique athlete, with incredible explosiveness (40” vert, 10’04 broad) and agility (6.75s 3-cone). He also ran a very poor 4.62s 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, but his 10-yard split was actually an above-average 1.57s—it’s worth wondering if maybe it was just a poor attempt and Trammell’s real speed is somewhere in the 4.5s.

Trammell played with a very poor rotation of QBs at Rice—10, to be exact—until Michael Collins took the reins in 2020. He’s a bit of a sleeper who could have a better-than-expected NFL career than his UDFA status would indicate, but I think his path to the 53-man roster will be tough in 2021. A year on the practice squad to groom him into a potential future starter in the slot could be his best path forward.