The Atlanta Falcons mostly ignored the wide receiver position under the previous regime, drafting a league-low two receivers over the past six years. It looks to be that things will change with the infusion of the new coaching staff in 2015.
It’s likely that the Falcons will use one of their eight 2015 NFL draft picks to add some much-needed youth to the wide receiver corps, but it’s just a matter of how big a priority it will be and what type of player they are targeting.
After signing free-agent wide receiver Leonard Hankerson earlier this offseason, the Falcons could presumably get away with their current set of receivers. Hankerson is likely to fill a reserve role behind starters Julio Jones and Roddy White, with Devin Hester and Eric Weems likely to contribute on special teams and provide additional depth. The Falcons also added Nick Williams this offseason to go with practice-squad holdovers Bernard Reedy and Freddie Martino.
The Falcons could take a flyer on a late-round pick with the intention of that player competing with the likes of Weems and immediately carving out a role on special teams. The Falcons have looked at a number of options thus far in the draft process, especially players with return experience. Notable ones include Ty Montgomery (Stanford), Chandler Worthy (Troy), Mario Alford (West Virginia) and Jamison Crowder (Duke).
Should the Falcons take a receiver that can be a returner, it would be in preparation for the eventual departure of Hester, who turns 33 this November and is signed through 2016. But the Falcons could save potentially $3 million against next year’s cap if he’s cut a year from now before his contract expires. Right now, Williams and Reedy are the only prime candidates that could potentially replace him. The Falcons might feel it necessary to add another young option to the mix and also hope that player can eventually develop into a steady backup down the road.
But Atlanta is by no means tied to Hankerson either. He signed a modest one-year contract that won’t prevent the team from cutting him this summer should he not show that he’s fully recovered from the knee injury that cost him all of the 2014 season. Instead, the Falcons could opt to use an earlier pick on a receiver in the hopes that he can push Hankerson for the No. 3 role, and eventually develop into a starter opposite Jones.
The latter issue might arrive sooner rather than later with White turning 34 in November and coming off a very lackluster 2014 campaign. Frankly, the Falcons should be more concerned with whether White can hold up as a starter for another year rather than if Hester has another year or two left in him as a viable returner.
With expectations that the Falcons will have a renewed emphasis on the vertical passing game, the Falcons would be smart to add more speed to the unit. While both White and Hankerson make their fair share of big plays downfield, neither would be labeled as vertical threats, i.e. players that threaten the defense with their vertical speed. Outside Jones, Hester is their most dynamic weapon but as noted before, he might not be long for Atlanta.
Thus, it makes perfect sense for the Falcons to add some depth in the draft that can stretch the field. Prospects like Sammie Coates (Auburn) and Phillip Dorsett (Miami FL) might fit that bill. But for obvious reasons, there is a premium on such players in the draft. Both Coates and Dorsett are expected to be selected on the second day of the draft.
If the Falcons opt to address other more pertinent needs early in the draft, their pickings may become slimmer into the middle and later rounds. Instead, the Falcons may opt to just find a competent receiver with starting potential as opposed to someone specifically to make plays downfield. Players like Vince Mayle (Washington State) and Justin Hardy (East Carolina) offer the size, but not the speed to be chain-movers at the next level.
Regardless of which type of receiver the Falcons wind up with, it’s likely that they will bring in someone via the draft to push the likes of Hankerson, Weems and Hester for a reserve spot with the hope that said player will have an even bigger role come 2016. That might be as the team’s return specialist, as the No. 3 receiver, or it could even be as a starter across from Jones. And if the Falcons land the right player, it could be some combination of them.