The Atlanta Falcons are in the midst of remaking their wide receiver corps and it’s likely that they will take significant strides in this summer’s training camp to continue that process, with much higher possibility that several familiar faces may be cut.
However this summer’s camp is unlikely to feature much competition at the top of the depth chart with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu locked into their roles as starters. Justin Hardy is almost certainly set to be the team’s third option and de facto 12th starter given the prevalence of three wide receivers in today’s NFL. According to ESPN’s passing splits, roughly 68 percent of quarterback Matt Ryan’s 614 passing attempts last season came when the team had three or more wide receivers on the field.
The only real question among the starters boils down to how they will be used in 2016, particularly with how the team will decide to divvy up slot reps. Jones spent about a quarter of his snaps last year playing in the slot, which is unlikely to change given how effective it was. The question remains whether either Sanu or Hardy will get the bulk of the remaining snaps there.
Hardy was the team’s primary slot receiver last year as he got the bulk of the remaining snaps in the second half of hte year when Leonard Hankerson was injured. But Sanu is also a player that has spent the majority of his career playing inside and has been most effective there. Yet both Hardy and Sanu could spend the bulk of 2016 playing outside receiver, which might make either less effective.
Hardy played almost exclusively at Roddy White’s now vacated “Z” receiver spot last preseason before making the move inside to the “Y” slot role midway through the regular season. Obviously with Sanu being tapped to replace White, the Falcons will utilize him there when the team is using two wideouts. Yet it remains unclear if Sanu slides inside when the team moves to three wide receivers or will Hardy remain in the role in 2016.
Regardless, it’s clear that one or both receivers will have to prove themselves as being more effective working outside the numbers. Given Sanu’s much higher salary and sturdier frame, it makes sense that he’ll be expected to step up his game on the outside as opposed to Hardy.
Behind those three is where most of the competition and fluidity on the depth chart currently exists and is likely to come this summer. The biggest vacancy will be for the team’s fourth wide receiver spot. Nick Williams is the incumbent, but the team signed another former Shanahan player in Aldrick Robinson this offseason, with those two likely fighting over the same spot.
Williams is a bit undersized and is best used inside in the slot. But with the presences of Jones, Sanu and Hardy ahead of him, his value could be significantly diminished as the Falcons don’t have as much used for a fourth slot receiver.
That’s why Robinson’s addition should allow him to win that spot since he’s better suited to receive reps on the outside thanks to his vertical ability. Robinson served as the Washington Redskins’ primary vertical threat during his years working with Shanahan in 2012 and 2013 and was quite effective in that role, averaging over 20 yards per reception on 29 combined catches in those years.
That speed should give Robinson a boost in a direct competition with Williams for the fourth receivers pot, providing something relatively unique to the lineup. Not to mention the Falcons have been missing a secondary vertical threat besides Jones in their offense for the past few seasons.
The Falcons carried six receivers on the roster for most of 2015, which means that both Robinson and Williams could potentially wind up making the team and leaving one spot available for others.
That would certainly be devoted purely to a special teams role as Devin Hester, Eric Weems and Devin Fuller are competing for the right to be the team’s primary kick returner. Hester missed three quarters of 2015 with a toe injury, with Weems filling in adequately for him. Yet Hester turns 34 in November while Weems will enter the season at age 31.
The Falcons utilized a seventh-round pick on Fuller this past year with the obvious attempt to get younger at the spot. That likely means that the return specialist role might be Fuller’s job to win or lose. Given how much the league has legislated kickoff returns out of the game with recent rule changes, it’s unlikely that the Falcons would utilize a draft pick on a player like Fuller, whose primary value to the team will be as a returner without planning on utilizing him as such.
But Fuller won’t be handed anything and will have to earn his spot. Hester and Weems are well-versed veterans and particularly the latter has long been the team’s most effective player on special-teams coverage units, serving as the “up-back” or personal protector of punter Matt Bosher. In five seasons of Weems playing in that role dating back to 2009, last season was the first time a punt had been blocked with Weems on the field.
Cutting Weems would first require finding another player to serve in that capacity as personal protector, with no obvious candidates elsewhere on the roster, let alone at wide receiver. Safety Ricardo Allen was the only other player to get reps in that role last preseason, making him a possible candidate but any others would have to be discovered this summer.
Hardy’s play on special-teams coverage units also could undermine Weems’ grip on a roster spot, as the former was surprisingly effective there. It’s clear that the Falcons have positioned themselves this summer to potentially replace both Hester and Weems, yet again that doesn’t mean that either veteran will concede a spot.
Beyond them, battling it out at the back end of the depth chart will be a practice-squad holdover in Jordan Leslie as well as a trio of undrafted rookies: David Glidden, Daje Johnson and J.D. McKissic.
Leslie brings good size and hands to the roster, while Glidden is a slot specialist in a similar vein as Williams.
Johnson and McKissic’s primary value could be being alternative options as return threats. Johnson lacks size but has the speed to become a dark horse to unseat Hester as the team’s primary return specialist, evidenced by two career punt returns for touchdown during his time at the University of Texas.
McKissic was far less productive on special teams during his days at Arkansas State, but is a solid all-around athlete that could also figure into the mix.
All four players are most likely competing for spots on the practice squad, as their chances of leap-frogging the likes of Robinson or Williams to earn a full-fledged spot on the 53-man roster is very low.
If things go according to plan, the Falcons likely want to see Jones, Sanu, Hardy and Robinson as their top four receivers on the depth chart by the end of camp. How many players make the team beyond that remains to be seen, although we know at least one will likely be the return specialist. Fuller and Hester are competing directly for that spot, with the likelihood that only one sticks.
Hester’s experience should give him a leg up in the competition, but it’s clear the Falcons want to get younger at the position. The positive for Fuller is that if he fails to unseat one of the NFL’s most prolific scoring machines, he still remains practice-squad eligible.
Williams’ experience serving as the fourth option last year gives him a leg up should the Falcons expand the roster to six players, or the team could be looking for a little bit of a tried and true performer on special teams like Weems.
Regardless the back end of the wide receiver depth chart will be one of the more hotly contested positions on offense this summer as a handful of players compete for what may wind up being one or two roster spots. It could result in several veteran fixtures on special teams like Hester and Weems being pushed out the door as the Falcons continue their endeavors to re-shape their wide receiver corps.