Three years ago, the Falcons had Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and Russell Gage in the same group of receivers. Two years ago, they had Julio, Ridley and Gage. Today, they have zero of those players under contract.
We don’t need to go through the whole sordid tale for why that is—you know Calvin Ridley was just suspended for the season, and that Julio Jones was traded—but it’s not an exaggeration to say the situation in this team’s receiving corps hasn’t been this dire since 2006. Rebuilding that group into a credible one is one of the dominant priorities of the offseason, especially given that this team has an uncertain offensive line situation, a backfield in need of rebuilding and a soon-to-be 37 year old quarterback who desperately need capable targets. Oh, and they don’t figure to have a lot of money.
All of this conspires to put an enormous amount of strain on Terry Fontenot and company to build a credible, deep receiving corps. The Falcons can’t even pay lip service to being competitive in 2022 if they can’t field a decent receiving corps, as a bunch of aimlessly scurrying receivers are going to once again turn this Atlanta passing game into a shell of what once was.
You have one great receiving threat in Kyle Pitts, but he can’t do it alone. What do the Falcons need to do to get this receiving corps back in shape for 2022 and beyond?
Re-sign Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus
The Falcons will not want to overpay Gage, but the reality is that they need at least one target that Matt Ryan can trust. Gage’s slow start to the 2021 season is likely to give the team pause, but he was rolling in the second half of the season, can function as a very good third or fourth option in your passing game, and has indicated he’d like to be in Atlanta. It was largely due to circumstance, but Gage is still the most targeted player in the Falcons passing game over the past three seasons, and if Atlanta lets him walk they really do have to rebuild the entire receiving corps from scratch. So long as the dollars aren’t outrageous, he should be back.
Ditto Zaccheaus. He’s not going to be better than the third or fourth receiver—strong bet on fourth when the dust settles on the offseason—but he offers special teams value and is occasionally lethal as a deep threat. Pair that with his affordability and I don’t think it’s wise to let him walk.
Hit free agency hard
The Falcons are not going to spend top dollar to land the best receivers on the market, but they need to add at least one veteran receiver to help out. Ideally they’d bring in more than one given that free agents receivers do not always (read: rarely) work out well.
Ideally, that would mean an exciting young receiver coming off a forgettable year, which would lead the Falcons to sign someone like D.J. Chark. I’d be more than happy with Tre’Quan Smith—a player Fontenot knows well from his Saints days—alongside a reclamation project like Will Fuller. If both guys don’t hit, you shouldn’t be out a massive amount of money. If they do, you’ve added a credible red zone threat with size and a game-breaking speedster to your passing game, Either way, you’re hopefully adding a year of competence while you work on the guy you just invested a top pick in.
Draft your next great receiver
This doesn’t have to be at #8. David Bell and Justyn Ross are two receivers with intriguing size and ability who might be had in the second round, and the Falcons just so happen to have two second round picks. Neither one is going to be Calvin Ridley or Julio Jones, but they can be credible top receiving threats in a capable passing game, especially one that has Kyle Pitts.
The Falcons could well invest their top pick in a receiver if that’s the right fit for them, but I have to imagine they’ll have more intriguing “best player available” options at #8 if they don’t trade down. Coming out of this year without drafting a receiver they think can be one of their top options in the near future feels like a massive problem, even if they wind up hitting on the one receiver they invested in a year ago. That brings us to...
Give Frank Darby a chance
He had the quietest rookie season imaginable, but it’s worth remembering that Darby was an interesting player in college who showcased physicality and some real ability to stretch the field. A year of largely sitting and learning may well have paid dividends for him, and the Falcons aren’t going to be in a position to park him for a second straight season. Regardless of how they invest this coming spring and summer, they’ll be a lot better off over the long haul if Darby can help.
If Darby turns into even a passable third or fourth receiver in this offense, the Falcons will be in much better shape than they might have been otherwise. I’m enough of a Darby fan to think that might just happen.
A receiving corps of, say, Russell Gage, David Bell, Tre’Quan Smith, Will Fuller, Frank Darby and Olamide Zaccheaus isn’t going to be confused with the heyday of Julio and Ridley in Atlanta, or the days of peak Roddy White and Julio. It would offer Atlanta a mix of skillsets and enough talent to still have a credible passing game in 2022, especially if they invest wisely at tight end, and Gage, Bell and Darby could be the start of something interesting in 2023 and beyond. What is clear is that the Falcons can’t afford to neglect the position this offseason after receiver was a massive sore spot for the offense in 2021, and with Ridley out for the upcoming season and unlikely to return to Atlanta, there can’t be any illusions in Flowery Branch about how vital and difficult rebuilding the position is going to be.
How would you fix this receiving corps in 2022?