When a front office is in the rebuild process and used their first two first-round picks on skill position players, it’s hard to claim they have to make another major move to add a pass catcher to the ranks. Arthur Smith has one of the more efficient offenses in the league, and Kyle Pitts and Drake London are rising stars.
The ground game is capable of punishing any defense front with its array of talented backs and impressive formation usage to bring the best out of their blockers. The offense is going in the right direction, yet the coaching staff can’t rest on the foundation they built. They must evolve to become more prolific, and they must add to their talent base.
It’s no secret the Falcons were heavily reliant on running the ball last season. Although quarterback limitations played a significant part in the team becoming one-dimensional during long stretches of the season, the receiver room left a lot to be desired, as anticipated. None of the one-year chances they took on wide receivers materialized into anything substantial outside of a few explosive plays from Damiere Byrd.
Not having a steady second wide receiver put the offense at a great disadvantage, especially when Pitts suffered a season-ending knee injury. The organization can’t put the offense in a position to be limited through the air once again.
A positional need doesn’t mean a major investment is required
Considering all the defensive issues and concerns on the interior offensive line, the Falcons would like to allocate their big spending toward upgrading those positions. That should be the biggest priority before going into the draft.
This free agency period is a long time coming for a team that essentially couldn’t spend for two seasons. To be gone of ugly contracts and pursue the best available talent to build a playoff-caliber team creates plenty of excitement. That doesn’t mean other mid-level alternatives should be discounted.
The wide receiver market hasn’t looked this scarce in years. There aren’t any top-tier wide receivers available. Unless your front office is willing to take a chance on trading for DeAndre Hopkins or signing Odell Beckham, the chances of adding a wide receiver this off-season that will make your fan base go berserk is highly unlikely.
The Falcons won’t do either. They will go the sensible route in signing a pass catcher that could fit nicely into Smith’s offense. A physical wide receiver that can make plays across the middle of the field to maximize play action designs and be a willing blocker to break outside runs open.
Unlike my illustrious colleague Dave Choate, I believe the need to sign a wide receiver should be among the top priorities to make this a successful off-season. The offense needs another consistent option to create more one on one opportunities for London and Pitts. As impressive as London was in his rookie season, the onus can’t be on him to be the only consistent wide receiver. It was alarming how London’s target share was the fourth highest in the league following Pitts’ season-ending injury against Chicago.
Olmaide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge, and Byrd didn’t make enough plays to relieve the pressure on London. They can’t afford to force London or Pitts to carry the passing game in case one of them gets injured. Having a third viable option not only provides necessary depth but creates more high-percentage throws for the quarterback and punishes defenses for not having the personnel to cover that player.
This is the first time the Falcons are expected to be seriously active in free agency since 2016. It’s fitting that they needed a big-body, hard-nosed physical wide receiver at the time. That positional hole led to the signing of Mohamed Sanu, which proved to be an ideal fit and great success over three seasons. While Pitts and London are nowhere near the caliber of Julio Jones, the Falcons’ wide receiver room is in need of talent similar to how it was in 2016.
Allen Lazard and JuJu Smith-Schuster are the best current options. While Jakobi Meyers, Darius Slayton, and D.J. Chark are exciting players with distinctive game-changing qualities, it’s hard to see the coaching staff pinpointing them as strong fits.
Lazard and Smith-Schuster bring an edge to their respective games, where defensive backs must respect their ability to make contested catches and put them on the ground in the run game. Those are two strengths Smith highly values from his receivers.
Lazard is the quintessential number two wide receiver, as he isn’t consistent enough to be the primary driving force behind a passing game, but produces explosive plays and wins one-on-one opportunities with his big frame.
The long-time Packer is a tremendous blocker, with Pro Football Focus grading him highly in that category. He can be a tone-setter as well. Look no further than his highlight-reel block against the Dolphins on Christmas in taking out three defenders. Considering how much success the Falcons had running to the right last season, a blocker like Lazard would generate even more explosive plays coming from out of the backfield. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Falcons sign him.
Although Smith-Schuster is a unique weapon and a terrific blocker, there may be some trepidation over signing him due to past injuries and being most effective in the slot. London’s capabilities in the slot need to be utilized as much as possible. Smith-Schuster remains an option, as is the possibility of signing Corey Davis, who will likely be a cap casualty in New York.
Given the Tennessee connection, along with Davis having the best season of his career with Smith calling plays in 2020, it would be a great low-risk, high-reward move to add another big wide receiver. Davis does come with injury concerns, but his familiarity with the offense and playmaking ability makes him an appealing option if Lazard and Smith-Schuster go elsewhere.
Making the move
With the second most cap space in the league, the time is now for the front office to be aggressive in addressing a plethora of positional needs. The draft will always be the best resource to build a sustainable, championship-caliber roster. Free agency is meant to strike when the fit and price are suitable for constructing a team ready to compete with the best. A few signings will be for the long haul. Others could be for two years, where the goal is they can play at a high level to bring the best out of the respective unit they play on.
Smith had plenty to digest after two seasons of managing with strict restrictions. He’s done his best to overcome limitations and maximize the team’s greatest strengths. That has to end at some point. The offense must be more balanced by growing into a diverse, multi-dimensional unit filled with explosive plays and legitimate playmaking threats.
A long-term solution at quarterback would surely make the process towards becoming that easier. For now, the organization needs to create the best infrastructure possible for Desmond Ridder or whoever is added to become an effective passing team that can capitalize on defenses when trying to load the box to stop the run. A capable second wide receiver would be a pivotal step toward transforming an intriguing offense into a dynamic one.