The Atlanta Falcons could begin the overhaul of their wide receiver position, making supplementing this group one of their bigger priorities on offense this offseason.
The Falcons have historically neglected drafting a wide receiver under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, with only three picks spent on the position from 2008 to 2014, the lowest total in the league over that span. The average for the other 31 NFL team during that span was to use 7.1 picks on the position. That neglect has put the Falcons behind the eight ball when it comes to securing young, developmental talent at the position.
Things started to take a turn when the Falcons drafted Justin Hardy in the fourth round of last year’s draft and it’s likely that 2016 will bring on a second consecutive year of utilizing a pick at the position. The Falcons simply need to get younger and more explosive at this position, as veteran Julio Jones spent too much of 2015 trying to carry the rest of the group.
Hardy should find a home in the slot in 2016, having spent the majority of his time over the second half of 2015 playing that role. It’s a role ideally suited for the young receiver, who is neither the biggest nor fastest option out there. But he has good hands and showed a knack for getting open on short and intermediate option routes over the middle.
Jones still will remain the team’s primary weapon, being moved all over the field as a dynamic chess piece for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. But Jones battled through injuries during the middle part of 2015, and not coincidentally that was at the same time that the offense’s overall production started to take a dip. The Falcons are still too much of a “one-man team” in the passing game and it’s imperative that they start to correct that by getting more playmakers to complement Jones.
Beyond Hardy and Jones, nobody else currently on the roster is guaranteed to be there when the regular season opens up seven months from now. The team already parted ways with impending free agent Leonard Hankerson, when he pushed for his release less than two weeks after he was placed on injured reserve in December. Hankerson wasn’t part of the team’s future plans according to head coach Dan Quinn and that may also apply to other veterans currently on the roster.
That includes Roddy White, Devin Hester and Eric Weems, who are all on the wrong side of 30 years of age. White was extremely underwhelming as a starter in 2015 and his relatively high cap hit of roughly $6.14 million might be too rich for the Falcons to carry given his lack of production. White’s ability moving forward is likely catered towards being a slot receiver, which is the role that Hardy is destined to fill. It’s a clash that should prompt White’s release before the start of free agency.
Hester missed most of 2015 with a toe injury, and is expected to miss a significant chunk of the offseason after having surgery on that toe last month. The Falcons could part ways, figuring that the 33-year old receiver is not worth the $3.83 million he is slated to count towards their cap this year, particularly since his role seems exclusively as a return threat under Shanahan. The Falcons could try and add a younger return specialist or go into next season with either Weems or Nick Williams in the role.
Weems served as a competent return specialist for much of 2015 with Hester out of the lineup, and has always been an excellent performer on special-teams coverage. But the 30-year old’s cap hit of nearly $1.15 million might be a little pricey for a role player that offers little value on offense. They could purge most of it by releasing him this offseason.
Thus Williams might become the de facto third receiver heading into the offseason, a status that probably won’t last long. While Williams has value on special teams and can add depth as a slot receiver, he’s not talented enough to be much more than a fifth option on most NFL teams’ depth charts.
That could mean that the Falcons are looking to add at least two receivers this offseason to fill the various voids should they cut bait with multiple veterans this offseason. Ideally one will come in free agency and the other in the draft. Even if the team manages to keep or more veterans, they are best served trying to upgrade with multiple additions this spring.
The free-agent pool isn’t particularly exciting. While Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery is the biggest name, he’s almost a certainty to receive the franchise tag should he not get extended before March. That leaves players like Marvin Jones, Rishard Matthews, Travis Benjamin and Jermaine Kearse as some of the next best options potentially available. None are standouts, but could add value as secondary options opposite Jones.
Benjamin has experience playing for Shanahan during their shared stay in Cleveland in 2014, while Kearse is also a known commodity to head coach Dan Quinn from his stint in Seattle. Both players offer vertical capabilities on the oustide that are currently lacking at the No. 2 receiver position.
Jones and Matthews are probably better described as “possession” receivers, fitting the mold of player that the Falcons likely hoped White would be this past year as a reliable option on third downs and in the red zone.
If the Falcons are unable to land one of those four players or an unspecified veteran that gets cut by another team this offseason, the pickings appear slim. Thus why it’s even more likely that the Falcons will at least try and supplement their wide receiver corps with a relatively high draft pick later this offseason, where they won’t be handcuffed by a modest talent pool.
Historically speaking, both Kyle Shanahan and his father Mike have preferred No. 2 outside receivers with size and speed. It’s likely that will be the type of young receiver the Falcons will target. It’s highly unlikely the Falcons will use their first-round pick on that position given other more pressing needs on defense and along the offensive line, but there’s a high probability that at some point betweens Rounds Two and Four, a wide receiver could come off the board for the Falcons.
As mentioned earlier, youth and explosiveness are keys for the Falcons to focus on this offseason, whether in the draft or free agency. While free agency offers less of those two traits, it’d be smart for the Falcons to add at least one or two veterans this offseason to not only bolster competition but also to give them a more known commodity. Rookie receivers are notorious erratic when it comes to how much production can be expected of them early in their careers. Hardy is a prime example of this, as he was inactive for the first seven games of the year. It would be hard for the Falcons to rely on a rookie to replace a player like White if need be in 2016.
The Falcons may opt to play it safe and not dump all the veterans with the expectation of making a complete overhaul this offseason. But they will certainly take the first few steps with the expectation that there will be multiple additions this offseason at wide receiver.