Atlanta Falcons 2015 Training Camp Preview: Wide Receivers

James Guillory-USA TODAY SportsJustin Hardy

One of the deeper positions on the Atlanta Falcons’ roster is their group of wide receivers, sporting a pair of entrenched starters in Julio Jones and Roddy White.

Jones is on the verge of receiving a monster contract extension and has emerged as the team’s clear-cut No. 1 option in the passing game over the past two seasons. Unlike last summer, where Jones was still in the midst of recovering from a foot injury, there are no question marks surrounding the team’s top target heading into this year’s camp. It’s only a matter of when and how much he gets paid so that he can treat teammates to Latitude 360 when it finally arrives in Georgia.

However there are some questions surrounding White as the Falcons prepare to enter camp. White’s 10th season in the NFL was one that was plagued by injuries, leading White to have a very disappointing 2014 campaign. White battled an offseason knee injury that seemingly sapped his ability to run crisp routes and separate from lesser cornerbacks throughout the early portion of last season and dealt with the emotional fallout from his brother’s untimely death.

If White is poised to shake off last year’s poor season and rebound with a stronger 2015, it remains to be seen. The Falcons held White out of most of June’s minicamp and he was seen sporting a brace on the same left knee that bothered him throughout 2014. It raises concerns over whether White is going to be a reliable option in the upcoming season.

How many “days of rest” White receives throughout camp will be worth monitoring, especially relative to other veterans that are roughly the same age. If he’s being sat a lot more than fellow veterans like Devin Hester, Jonathan Babineaux and Chris Chester, then it might be an indicator that his knee hasn’t fully recovered.

Speaking of Hester, it’s very likely that he’ll be asked to take a back seat to two incoming wide receivers this summer in Leonard Hankerson and Justin Hardy. Hester’s primary value to the Falcons is expected to be his return skills, but he still should see some reps on offense. But it’s unlikely that new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will rely on him as much as his predecessor, Dirk Koetter, did in 2014.

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Leonard Hankerson

Hankerson is a veteran that has experience playing under Shanahan during their shared days with the Washington Redskins. Hankerson brings knowledge of the offensive system and a big target that quarterback Matt Ryan hasn’t had besides Jones in recent years. Hankerson isn’t a lock to make the roster however, given limited value on special teams. But he’s versatile and if he can come out this summer and show that the ACL tear, suffered in 2013, that also sidelined him for all of 2014 is a thing of the past.

He’ll be pushed by fourth-round draft pick Justin Hardy, potentially for the right to be the No. 3 wideout on the depth chart. Hardy possesses the best potential and upside to becoming an asset on offense among the team’s reserve wide receivers. Hardy is likely destined to play in the slot for the Falcons in 2015 and beyond, a role that should shorten his learning curve given that was his primary position at East Carolina.

Hardy is really the player to watch this summer at this position group. With a strong summer he could potentially encroach on White’s targets with the team’s starting offense. Without one, then he’ll likely start the season as the fifth option on the depth chart, giving way to the more experienced Hankerson and Hester.

The Falcons could keep all five of the aforementioned receivers on the roster. If they do, it’ll likely lead them to keeping six receivers since Eric Weems is also a strong candidate to stick. Like Hester, Weem’s primary value comes on special teams; but instead of returning kickoffs and punts, it comes in the form of coverage as Weems led the Falcons in special teams tackles last season with 13. It’s doubtful that the Falcons would let such a productive special teams performer walk away, especially with no obvious wide receiver among the rest of the position group that could slide in and take over his role.

In the end, the Falcons appear likely to keep six wide receivers. If they opt for only five, then Hankerson is probably the candidate most likely to be left out in the cold. This also means that the rest of the group is likely competing for a chance at the practice squad.

Between Nick Williams, Bernard Reedy, Freddie Martino, Carlton Mitchell and Marquez Clark, all players are eligible for the practice squad.

Williams is a player that also played under Shanahan in Washington, spending the past two summers there. If anybody else on the roster is capable of unseating Weems as the sixth wide receiver, it might be Williams. He saw action with the Redskins throughout the second half of the 2013 season, showing some ability in special teams coverage as well as returning kickoffs and punts. While Williams won’t push Hester in that regard, he like Weems could potentially add value as a reserve return specialist should Hester miss time due to an injury.

Reedy was a star of last summer’s minicamps and practices, but failed to show up as big in preseason games. That resulted in him spending the entire season on the practice squad.

Martino also was on the practice squad a year ago but managed to spend five weeks on the active roster after the team released Courtney Roby in October. Martino only caught a single pass during last summer’s preseason, but it happened to be a 66-yard touchdown. Both Reedy and Martino won’t be given the benefit of the doubt by the new coaching staff and will have to show considerably more production in preseason if they want another opportunity to remain on the team’s practice squad.

Mitchell is the most experienced of the group, spending two years with the Cleveland Browns in 2010 and 2011 before spending the past two seasons playing north of the border in the Canadian Football League. Mitchell brings physical tools with good size and vertical speed, but he’ll need to show his time in Canada has paid off by making him into a more reliable offensive weapon.

Clark lacks ideal size, but has good speed and hands with return skills. It might be the latter of those skills that gives him the best chance to stick on the practice squad. Hester turns 33 in November and at this point there’s no guarantee that he’ll return for the final year of his contract in 2016.

It would make perfect sense for the Falcons to hope to find his potential replacement this summer and stash him for a year on the practice squad. Along with Clark, Williams and Reedy bring extensive return experience from their collegiate days. Reedy showcased some return prowess last summer, which might give him a slight leg up in such a competition.

Overall, the bulk of the competition this summer at wide receiver will involve various players jockeying for position on the depth chart with only a handful of roster spots truly being up for grabs.

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Aaron Freeman
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