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Falcons 2022 free agent targets: Wide receiver

Atlanta seems unlikely to make a splash, but they’ll need to sign multiple players to re-stock a depleted receiving corps.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Falcons will have to rebuild their wide receiver group this spring and summer. The question is how significant that rebuild will be.

Today, only Frank Darby is under contract and on the roster, with a couple of reserve/future options in Chad Hansen and Austin Trammell. Calvin Ridley is now suspended for the entire 2022 season. Russell Gage, Tajae Sharpe, Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake are all impending free agents. That all adds up to a lot of uncertainty, and an opportunity to change things up significantly at wide receiver.

That will likely start in free agency. Gage and Zaccheaus ought to be back if what they’re looking for fits with the team’s plans, but there’s also more than a few intriguing options in the market and the team seems likely to bring in at least one. Who’s out there, and who might the team be interested in?

High-level starters

  • Allen Robinson, 28
  • Chris Godwin, 26
  • Davante Adams, 29
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster, 25
  • Mike Williams, 27
  • Christian Kirk, 25
  • Odell Beckham Jr., 29*
  • Michael Gallup, 26

Let’s note something important with this top group: The Falcons are only likely to explore signing one of these players if they’re trying to replace Ridley 1:1, as it will chew up all the cap space they’ve saved by Ridley...being suspended for the year. God, being a Falcons fan is rough.

Godwin or Adams would be the biggest splashes you could make here, but they’re going to be exorbitantly expensive and the subject of major bidding wars. Robinson might be a more reasonable target given the intersection of his talent and his cost, as he’s coming off somewhat of a down year. At 6’2” and 220 pounds with some truly impressive red zone work in his past, it’s not difficult to see the Falcons prioritizing signing him if they can find a deal that works.

The younger options on this list are extremely intriguing, but with some of them, it’s difficult to see them getting away from their current teams. Williams is an absolute stud fresh off a career season with the Chargers, and while at 6’4” he’d be Arthur Smith’s one true love forever and ever, Los Angeles would have to be crazy to let him walk. Smith-Schuster is coming off a deeply forgettable year marred by injury but seems dedicated to staying in Pittsburgh.

Gallup and Kirk might be pried away, though. It seems like a healthy percentage of the fanbase has a crush on Gallup, who only played in nine games last year but was typically productive in them, and his speed and playmaking ability would be welcome in Atlanta. He’s just not a lock to be 100% by the beginning of the season. Kirk, meanwhile, has managed to produce despite being in a loaded receiving corps in Arizona, and his explosiveness and sure hands would make him a Matt Ryan favorite in Atlanta.

Beckham is going to miss significant time, so he’s more to acknowledge his ability than as a likely option.

Stopgap starters/quality reserves

  • Russell Gage, 26
  • A.J. Green, 33
  • Cedrick Wilson, 26
  • Jakobi Meyers, 25
  • Emmanuel Sanders, 35
  • Byron Pringle, 28
  • Zay Jones, 27
  • Allen Lazard, 26
  • Kalif Raymond, 27
  • Nick Westbrook, 25
  • DeSean Jackson, 35
  • Keelan Cole, 29
  • Jalen Guyton, 25
  • Jamison Crowder, 29
  • Laquon Treadwell, 27
  • Marques Valdez-Scantling, 27
  • Josh Reynolds, 27
  • Tre’Quan Smith, 26
  • T.Y. Hilton, 32
  • James Washington, 24
  • Rashard Higgins, 27
  • D.J. Chark, 25
  • Will Fuller, 28

This is likely where you’ll see the Falcons shop, because Terry Fontenot loves a bargain and this team still doesn’t have the cap space to take a bunch of big swings. Fortunately, there are interesting options here.

Gage appears to want to return to Atlanta and would be a smart re-signing if the numbers work. He started off the year in forgettable fashion but turned it on big-time in the final eight or so games, when he was essentially asked to be the team’s top non-Kyle Pitts option. He’s a typically reliable short-to-intermediate range option who is a capable blocker and a trusted target for Matt Ryan, and with so much uncertainty at the position it would be nice to know that Gage is locked in as your #2/#3 receiver.

I’ll re-up my prediction that this team will have significant interest in Tre’Quan Smith, who had a frustrating four year run in New Orleans but also has the requisite size and red zone ability to be a fit in Atlanta. The Falcons should be able to buy low on a player who scored on nearly half his red zone targets in 2021 and clearly has not played his best football, and Fontenot will know him well from his time with the Saints.

Chark doesn’t have the ties to this staff, but he’d be a fascinating addition. At 6’4” and just 25 years old with a combined 13 touchdowns between his 2019 and 2020 seasons, Chark is a strong fit for what this team appears to want at receiver and is coming off a lackluster, injury-marred 2021 that may drive his asking price down. Lazard, who stands 6’5” and is coming off a career year, would be less enticing addition than Chark but still one who would be a fit for a receiving corps the Falcons want to add size and red zone production to.

Pringle, Wilson and Jones are all similarly-sized receivers coming off career years—with Jones it’s the second-best season of his career, but it comes after two very quiet ones—and would figure to give you capable third receivers with some red zone ability. They’re not exactly identical players, but they’ll be looking to cash in after strong seasons and slot into similar roles in this offense, so I’m grouping them together.

Washington would be a sort of Christian Kirk Lite addition, as he possesses similar size and can be quite explosive, but does not have the track record of production and does have a history of ill-timed drops. Given his age and obvious ability, he’d be a welcome signing nonetheless.

Finally, A.J. Green is still obviously a quality receiver despite his age and would be a very nice one-year stopgap while the Falcons try to figure this thing out.

Reserves

  • Olamide Zaccheaus, 25
  • Christian Blake, 26
  • Tajae Sharpe, 27
  • Braxton Berrios, 26
  • Damiere Byrd, 29
  • Chris Conley, 29
  • Marquise Goodwin, 31
  • Chester Rogers, 28
  • DeAndre Carter, 29
  • Cam Sims, 26
  • Chris Moore, 29
  • Albert Wilson, 30
  • Tavon Austin, 32
  • Mohamed Sanu, 32
  • Jakeem Grant, 29
  • Equanimeous St. Brown, 25
  • Trent Sherfield, 26
  • Chad Beebe, 28

I’d expect Zaccheaus to return, but there are other interesting players on here from a special teams perspective. OZ is an occasionally lethal deep threat, a useful special teams player and a solid receiver overall, and given that he’ll be extremely cheap to keep around, it’d be shocking if the Falcons didn’t prioritize doing so. Blake, on the other hand, would seem likely to go after years of non-production.

Sims will be familiar to Kyle Smith, one of the team’s top personnel executives, and has a little untapped potential as a pass catcher in addition to his work on teams. If the Falcons want to push Avery Williams for a returner spot, Grant or Carter would be strong additions given their potentially game-breaking speed, and Arthur Smith and company could surely find at least limited use for them on offense.

St. Brown is an interesting option. He’ll cost the Falcons virtually nothing to sign, I would think, and is young enough to still have his best football ahead of him after falling out of favor in Green Bay. He’d be an interesting speculative signing to see if he could show the Falcons something over the summer.

Will the team bring Sharpe back? The sure-handed receiver had a couple of solid efforts in 2021 but really should be an option of resort if the Falcons whiff on some of the mid-tier free agents I highlighted above, as he does posses the requisite size, has ties to Arthur Smith and should be comfortable in the offense but doesn’t offer much in the way of upside.

Who would you prefer to sign from these lists?