The Falcons have undergone a lot of transition since the new decade began, but arguably no spot on this roster – quarterback aside – has changed as much as wide receiver. When Atlanta released its official roster before the 2020 season, wide receiver was a key strength. The position featured Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage as a three-headed monster with promising young players like Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake waiting in the wings.
In two short years, the Falcons no long have Jones or Gage on the roster and Ridley is serving a one-year suspension, with his future with the organization seemingly very much in doubt. That turnover ultimately led Atlanta to select USC receiver Drake London with the No. 8-overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, and he will hopefully become a centerpiece in the team’s turnaround.
Beyond London, however, questions are abundant. Let’s take a look at the Falcons’ receiver group now that the NFL Draft has passed.
The starters: Drake London & Damiere Byrd
2021 stats (USC): 88 receptions, 1,084 yards (12.3 y/r), 7 TD | RAS N/A
A number of players could slot into Byrd’s spot here, and they likely will when the season rolls around, but I’ve paired Byrd with London for this exercise because of how they complement one another. Byrd’s 4.27 speed gives Atlanta a legitimate deep threat to go alongside London’s size and vertical leaping ability.
London’s basketball background is apparent in the way he plays. Although fans have vocalized concerns about his lack of separation at the college level, his skill set has historically translated to the NFL level fairly well. He’s an athletic player with the ball in his hands and can run around guys just as easily as he runs over them.
2021 stats: 26 receptions, 329 yards (12.7 y/r), 1 TD | 53.8 PFF grade | 9.18 RAS
There’s no doubt that London enters training camp as the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart, but the question of who will emerge as the team’s No. 2 is very real. Only the Miami Dolphins ran fewer three-receiver sets than the Falcons did in 2021, and that is likely to continue this fall. While London is probably not coming off the field too often, the Falcons can certainly get creative with the player opposite of him.
Byrd’s experience in this league and his deep-threat ability give him the edge here over a few other players we will get to shortly, but the No. 2 receiver spot is going to be one of the most interesting camp battles to keep an eye on. It’s not out of the question that Atlanta adds a more bonafide second receiver between now and camp, but that seems unlikely given other priorities.
The supporting cast: Auden Tate, Olamide Zaccheaus, Frank Darby
2021 stats: 3 receptions, 39 yards (13 y/r), 1 TD | 69.6 PFF grade | 1.84 RAS
Tate goes from a very deep position group in Cincinnati to one where he should get plenty of opportunities. The 6-foot-5, 228-pound receiver is similar in stature to London and could easily serve as his understudy when the rookie needs a breather. Tate has been praised for his blocking ability and overall toughness on the football field, and his best season came in 2019 when he caught 40 passes for 575 yards and a touchdown. He’s not an explosive playmaker, but Tate should be an asset in Arthur Smith’s scheme that values versatility and physicality.
2021 stats: 31 receptions, 406 yards (13.1 y/r), 3 TD | 63.4 PFF grade | 6.18 RAS
One of the few familiar faces in the Falcons’ receiver room, Zaccheaus does bring an explosive element to this offense. He’s progressed in each of his three seasons with the team, which decided to bring him back on a one-year deal this offseason. While he’s not yet broken out to the level that Russell Gage did a couple of years ago, Zaccheaus is a prime candidate to emerge as the No. 2 opposite of London. A good preseason could result in Zaccheaus becoming a player Atlanta leans on when the games start counting.
2021 stats: 1 reception, 14 yards (14 y/r) | 74 PFF grade | 5.92 RAS
Billed as a deep threat coming out of college, Darby was mostly relegated to a special teams role in his rookie season. The Falcons were selective with how they deployed their rookies last season, and Darby was among the group that didn’t see much action on game days. Atlanta has to hope that changes in his second season, but the addition of Byrd could make the path ahead a little more challenging for Darby. He’ll need to have a strong training camp and preseason to crack the rotation, but it’s far too early to give up on the second-year player with a golden personality.
The best of the rest: KhaDarel Hodge, Austin Trammel, Chad Hansen, Jared Bernhardt, Stanley Berryhill, Tyshaun James
2021 stats: 13 receptions, 157 yards (12.1 y/r) | 68.1 PFF grade | RAS N/A
Another free agent addition on a one-year deal, Hodge has been a reserve receiver for much of his career and an ace on special teams. It’s likely that’s the role the Falcons have in mind for him as well, and like Justin Hardy and Eric Weems before him, Hodge could emerge as a leader on special teams. Hodge is coming off the best season of his career, and it’s likely he will make the roster coming out of camp. Perhaps Hodge belongs in the previous tier, but he feels more like a special teams acquisition than someone who the Falcons really plan to make a factor on offense.
2021 stats: N/A | 7.47 RAS
Trammel was a practice squad member who suited up in two games for the Falcons last season. A star during his college career at Rice, Trammel caught 142 passes for 1,744 yards and 13 touchdown. He also has experience as a kick returner, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a look there in camp as he fights to make a roster spot.
2021 stats: N/A | 7.39 RAS
Hansen was signed to the Falcons’ practice squad late during the 2021 season. A former fourth-round pick in 2017, Hansen has appeared in 20 games with three starts during his NFL career. He has caught 26 passes for 330 yards and one touchdown during that time, but he faces an uphill battle to land a roster spot here in Atlanta.
2021 stats: N/A | 7.32 RAS
An undrafted free agent out of Ferris State, Bernhardt is a very intriguing developmental prospect. He played just one season of football in college after a legendary lacrosse career at the University of Maryland. Bernhardt is the all-time record holder in numerous categories for Maryland lacrosse and won the lacrosse equivalent of the Heisman Trophy during his final season.
In his lone football season, during which he played quarterback, Bernhardt led Ferris State to a perfect 14-0 record and a national championship. He threw for 1,322 yards while running for 1,273 yards and scoring a combined 23 touchdowns. Given his background and potential upside, he seems like a lock for the practice squad.
2021 stats: N/A | 5.82 RAS
Another undrafted free agent for the Falcons, Berryhill played four seasons at Arizona and was named first-team All-Pac 12 as a senior. He finished his career with 139 receptions for 1,477 yards and nine touchdowns. Berryhill should get plenty of run during the preseason, but is considered a practice squad candidate at this time.
2021 stats: N/A | 9.56 RAS
The third and final undrafted free agent, James enjoyed a four-year career at Central Connecticut State University (points to you if you knew that was a school before right now) prior to arriving in Atlanta. Another all-conference player, James caught 114 passes for 1,881 yards and 18 touchdowns during his career.
Outlook: Building a foundation
Perhaps no position group represents where the Falcons are as an organization better than the receivers. Once among the best groups in the league, Atlanta is now trying to build back to where it was just a few years ago, with an assortment of interesting but mostly unproven talent to do so with. The selection of London gives the Falcons some hope for the future and a No. 1 option to build around, but other players will have to emerge for this depth chart to come anywhere close to giving defenses pause.
It feels very likely that the Falcons will do some serious overhauling with their receiver position next offseason when they have the finances to add proven players in free agency. For now, it’s all about seeing who beyond London can make themselves part of the long-term plan.