With the 202 NFL Draft and an active free agency in the rearview, it is time to take a fresh look at the Falcons’ roster. Today we’re looking at the Falcons’ wide receiver position, which is still in the process of being completely rebuilt from the ground up.
Things at wide receiver came tumbling down in a hurry after Dan Quinn was fired. You might say things started falling apart once Dirk Koetter returned, but that may be splitting hairs. The team’s top weapons in 2020 were all gone by 2022 during an abrupt, massive upheaval of prior “Falcons for life.” Imagine Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley starting with Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus providing depth at wide receiver, along with Hayden Hurst and Todd Gurley soaking up additional targets.
It sounded good on paper.
Cut to 2021 and the team’s top passing weapon was rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. Things changed. Now in 2023, things are looking very different indeed.
The starter: Drake London
2022 stats: 72 receptions, 866 yards, 4 TDs
The good news is that London cracked a Falcons rookie record for number of receptions, and despite his quarterback seemingly having forgotten his corrective contact lenses at home every Sunday, looked like the real deal. Probably more than his stats is London passed the eye test — he looked so much more than some rookie on the field. Hopes are high for his second season as he gave some Vincent Jackson vibes with his impressive size and strength.
London is the unquestioned WR1, but still isn’t quite a lock to lead the team in targets, receptions or passing yards.
Depth: Everyone else
I’m doing some projecting here but the talent after London is pretty poor. But how much is that going to matter? I’ll touch on that below. Let’s see who is on the roster, and why Atlanta may still sign a veteran free agent.
2022 stats: 57 receptions, 690 yards, 4 touchdowns
You might look at these stats and say these aren’t too different from London’s final numbers. That is true, with Hollins cleaning up as the WR2 in Las Vegas behind Davante Adams. The Raiders also threw the ball ~40% more than the Falcons and teams around the league weren’t fooled.
Hollins signed for only $2.5 million late in free agency. He’s the presumed WR2 who hopefully shakes out better than the team’s prior, former Raiders wide receiver with good size in Bryan Edwards. He could just as easily become buried on the depth chart while returning to his career average in receiving yards of a couple hundreds yard a season, but Hollins’ blocking and breakout 2022 at least means he should be in line for a role.
2022 stats: 13 receptions, 202 yards, 1 touchdown
A rare returning wide receiver, Hodge is set to have his second year as an occasionally-used downfield threat. He lacks the size Arthur Smith seems to like from his starters and has an uphill battle to find targets, with most of his work likely to come on special teams. Hodge probably slots somewhere a bit above his 2022 stats in a logjam of these depth wide receivers.
2022 stats: 23 receptions, 186 yards, 0 touchdowns
You may remember Scotty Miller as the guy who briefly impressed as the WR12 for the Tompa Bay Buccaneers. He won’t be able to sneak targets completely uncovered like the briefly-prime Bucs. His size makes me skeptical he earns a major role in Atlanta given the history of shorter slot receivers in Atlanta’s offense, but Miller’s speed means his targets should be productive ones.
Jared Bernhardt/Frank Darby/Penny Hart
2022 stats: Bad or non-existent
This is my “catch all” bucket as one of these guys may make the roster just based on the pure need for bodies. They could all also get cut with head coach Arthur Smith opting to instead carry an additional back or tight end, but Bernhardt was interesting last summer, Darby contributes on special teams, and Hart is fast and contributes on special teams. One of these guys should make it.
Atlanta’s depth chart at wide receiver became much less important after the first night of the draft. We know the Falcons will be running the ball. A lot. The Falcons had the most rushing attempts in the league in 2022 (559) and the second lowest passing attempts (415). That number may get even more lopsided with the addition of Bijan Robinson. More importantly, regardless of position, there’s a good chance Pitts leads the team in receptions, with Robinson landing at third or fourth in line.
I say all of that to say the the WR2 and the WR3 spot isn’t as important as it is with other teams. That isn’t to say the poor depth won’t create problems. Atlanta is a single injury to London or Pitts away from seeing the passing game become extremely limited, which would be bad news for Desmond Ridder. Zaccheaus was the team’s 2nd WR in targets last year with only 61, a number that would have been lower if Pitts didn’t miss 7 games. Damiere Byrd was third with only 23 targets, behind running back Cordarrelle Patterson and just ahead of tight end MyCole Pruitt.
Look for Pitts to take plenty of snaps out wide and Robinson seeing a healthy number of snaps in the slot.
Outlook: Not the most terrible situation... but close
Is the depth chart good? Absolutely not. The position is still exceptionally weak after the post-Brotherhood rebuild outside of London, who should be really good. Free agent wide receivers are extremely limited at the moment. The good news is Arthur Smith has drafted other versatile players who will pick up the slack, and the Falcons just won’t be throwing the ball a ton. It should lessen the need for a premier WR2 or WR3.
That should mean with some luck around player health, the Falcons will be fine enough for 2023.