The wide receiver position can be the land of opportunity for young players. If one starter goes down, there is no telling how much of a snap and target increase may occur for the receiver replacing him. If you build a strong rapport with the quarterback, it will likely lead to more chances to make an impact. It’s a position where circumstances can change rather quickly. Staying ready, perfecting your craft, and earning the quarterback’s trust are vital elements towards young receivers proving themselves at a high level. That’s what Russell Gage did to get where he is at within three years.
Russell Gage only started one full season as a wide receiver at LSU. When the Falcons selected him in the 2018 draft, some thought he was going to replace Andre Roberts as the return specialist. There was also the possibility of him being utilized similar to Taylor Gabriel on jet sweeps and reverses. Neither of those things that were envisioned came to a realization. Gage seemed set on becoming a full-fledged wide receiver.
A terrific 2019 preseason put him in a position to be a contributor in what was a stacked offense on paper. As the Falcons’ season exploded into rapid flames, the former sixth-round pick quickly found himself in a prominent role. Mohamed Sanu was traded to New England as the team’s playoff aspirations were gone by October. That meant Gage was going to become the third wide receiver, primarily lining up in the slot. He capitalized on the opportunity to become one of the few bright spots in an infuriating 2019 season for the Falcons.
It wasn’t easy for Gage to flourish in Dirk Koetter’s archaic offense. There wasn’t much pre-snap motion. Wide receivers mostly stayed in the same areas in the same formations, and his speed was infrequently utilized. The predictable route concepts clearly didn’t help matters as the offense slumbered to new lows in 2020. Besides the occasional wildcat (Gagecat) look where Gage lines up under center or bubble screen to get him out in space, he wasn’t able to produce many big plays for a player with a versatile skillset.
Still, for all the team’s issues, Gage continued to make strides as a route-runner and pass-catcher. He was creating consistent separation against nickel corners. Matt Ryan trusted him to make contested catches when he was well-covered. All of this progress indicated that Gage can be counted on.
As frustrating as it was at times, Gage did most of his damage in the slot. Even though he’s more than capable of being productive elsewhere, Koetter’s insistence on not moving players around in formations left him on the inside. That position meant a heavy dosage of choice routes, slants, posts, and outs. With improved footwork and excellent upper body movement to take corners out of position, the former sixth-round pick developed into a matchup problem.
It led to Ryan depending on him more often on third down. 21 of Gage’s 72 catches were on third down that led to first downs. His 21 catches were tied for seventh in the league with Cooper Kupp. For him to be near the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Travis Kelce in such an important statistical category is a validating feeling for someone who still doesn’t quite get the respect he deserves.
To little surprise, one of Gage’s best plays of the season came on third down. Facing a third and three against the Vikings, Ryan was ready to continue attacking a vulnerable secondary. He had been having arguably his best game of the season to this point. Operating out of the slot, Gage was matched up against highly-touted rookie corner Jeff Gladney.
It initially looked like a designed drag route based on Gage’s body shape. That would be an understandable route, given they only needed three yards to convert. Surprisingly, Gage swiftly jab-stepped and went vertical, creating immediate separation from Gladney. Ryan didn’t hesitate and lofted a pinpoint pass into the waiting hands of Gage.
Seeing Ryan connect with Gage on third down had become a weekly occurrence. What was different was seeing how it was executed. Gage was utilized primarily as a possession receiver that can move the chains out of the slot. Koetter put him in the slot to exploit advantageous matchups, particularly on third downs. Most of the routes out of the slot consisted of short to intermediate routes. For Gage to accelerate downfield and show what he can do on a vertical route was refreshing. It’s something that he wasn’t able to do enough of last season, largely due to play calling. The versatile receiver is more than capable of beating corners downfield with his sharp route-running and fluid change-of-direction ability. How he beats Gladney with ease here is so smooth.
This play ended up being a 27-yard gain. It helped push the Falcons towards their most unexpected win of the season. The offense was firing on all cylinders in that game in what proved to be their best offensive showing in 2020. Gage played his part in one of Julio Jones’ final dominant games as a Falcon. What this play showcased is that Gage is more than a standard possession receiver who primarily runs routes out of the slot. With his frame and knack for making contested catches, Arthur Smith should look to design route concepts for him to produce more explosive plays.
Gage is ready to take on a more enhanced role. Speaking to the official team website, he anticipates lining up in the X or Z position. Gaining valuable experience in that role will be beneficial, as it always has been over the course of his career. Learning from Jones and Sanu has clearly worked wonders in his career. He is now in a prime position as the number two wide receiver with one of the top offensive minds in football as the head coach. Look for Gage to continue to expand his overall game as one of the focal points of the Falcons’ aerial attack.