One of the most interesting things to watch in this upcoming 2016 season for the Atlanta Falcons will be which of the team’s two secondary wide receivers will emerge as a go-to threat for quarterback Matt Ryan.
Everyone knows that Julio Jones is the primary option in the Falcons offense. Everyone also knows that the majority of the team’s offense will be facilitated on the back, shoulders, hands, legs and hamstrings of Jones. Everyone additionally knows that if Jones has a big performance, the Falcons will be in a favorable position to win any given week.
But what everyone doesn’t know is if another performer in the passing game has a big week, will it mean comparable success for the Falcons offense. They also don’t know whether between Mohamed Sanu or Justin Hardy, which of the two will be more prone to have those performances this upcoming season.
How offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan utilizes that pair in conjunction with Jones is going to be something worth watching closely as the season unfolds. As things stand from here, it is somewhat difficult for me to imagine him finding a way to maximize both players’ skill sets alongside Jones.
That’s because both Sanu and Hardy are players that have done their best work in the slot over the years.
Sanu and Hardy Both Shine as Slot Receivers
The Cincinnati Bengals primarily played Sanu in the slot over the course of his four seasons there, under the assumption that they deemed that the best way to utilize him with better outside threats in Marvin Jones and A.J. Green on the roster. In 2014 Sanu saw more reps on the outside due to the injury-related absences of Jones for the entire season and Jones for a significant portion of the year.
Hardy is a player that looks tailor-made to be a classic version of the slot receiver found throughout the NFL today. Given his relatively smaller stature and lack of vertical speed in contrast to his quickness and strong route-running, playing him inside makes a lot more sense than asking him to try and beat the bigger, more physical outside corners.
One only has to look at the Falcons’ 2016 schedule to see a large number of big corners that specialize in press coverage like Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Sean Smith, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman and Delvin Breaux among others, that any potential outside receiver may face.
Yet it’s notable that throughout last summer the Falcons did not play Hardy in the slot hardly at all. Hardy got the vast majority of his preseason work last summer as the team’s “Z” or flanker receiver, the same position that Roddy White played in the offense.
Then once the regular season began, Hardy was inactive for the first seven weeks before finally getting his opportunity in Week Eight against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thereafter Hardy played in all of the team’s final nine games, participating in about 54.5 percent of the team’s offensive snaps over that span.
One could glean that one of the reasons why Hardy took so long to get into the lineup during the regular season because the team was spending those first few weeks trying to get him up to speed in the slot. Over those nine games played, 67.9 percent of Hardy’s receiving snaps came inside rather than outside.
Even after White’s release in February, it seemed that going into 2016 Hardy was destined to be the team’s primary slot receiver except on the plays when Jones lines up inside (which amounted to roughly a quarter of his snaps last season). That is, until the team added Sanu this past March.
Sanu A Good Fit to Replace Hankerson’s Role Inside in Falcons Offense
One feature of the Falcons offense early in the season when Hardy was on the bench was the team utilizing Hankerson in the “Y” (or slot) role with White affixed to the “Z.” The Falcons made ample use of deploying Hankerson and Jones together, using a complementary route combinations in order to create for one or both.
This element was prominent in the team’s Week Three win over the Dallas Cowboys, when the Falcons used a stack concept to twice create for Jones to great success in that game.
One could easily imagine Sanu being thrust into that same above role given that he shares many similarities with Hankerson given similar size and skill. Hardy has yet to emerge as a player that fits into that role quite as well today.
Thus it raises questions over how much time either Sanu or Hardy will see as the team’s “Z” receiver. Of course when the Falcons deploy just two receivers, Sanu will see the majority of the reps at the “Z” spot in White’s absence. But when the Falcons utilize three wideouts, will they also utilize Hardy there in order to better take advantage of the “Hankerson-esque” things Sanu offers as a “Y” receiver?
It’s a worthwhile question given that deployment of Jones, Hankerson and White seemed to garner the best results offensively for the Falcons early in 2015.
During that time of course, White was largely an afterthought when Hankerson was healthy through the first six games of 2015. In that six-game span, White played a combined 365 offensive snaps to Hankerson’s 288. However White was only targeted 21 times (or roughly once per 17.4 snaps) to Hankerson’s 39 (once per 7.4 snaps).
Of course Jones consumed the vast majority of targets in that span, seeing 72 targets in 357 offensive snaps (roughly once every 4.95 snaps). That figure was much higher during the first three weeks when Jones was more fully healthy, as he saw 46 targets on 177 total offensive snaps (once every 3.8 snaps). That figure only began to tail off in the intervening weeks when a hamstring injury slowed him down.
A big question heading into 2016 is whether or not the added presence of Sanu and the improved abilities of Hardy will significantly carve into Jones’ extended workload. There should be no doubt that the excessive workload that Jones appropriated early in the season led to injury that slowed him over the next six or so weeks.
Jones’ 2015 Season Tells Four Different Tales
As a result, I tend to break up Jones’ 2015 campaign into four distinct “quadrants:”
- Weeks One through Three when he was healthy and dominant
- Weeks Four through Nine when he wasn’t healthy, less dominant but still productive
- Weeks 11 through 14 when he was healthier, but less productive due to the level of competition he was facing
- Weeks 15 through 17 when he was once again healthy and dominant
One can simply look at Matt Ryan’s passer rating when throwing to Jones during those portions of the year to reflect these breakdowns:
Julio Jones 2015 Production by "Quadrant"
|Quadrant||GP||Tgt||Rec||Pct%||Yds||Avg||TD||INT||QB Rtg||Team Record|
That third quadrant is very interesting given how ineffective Jones was during that span. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he faced upper-echelon cornerbacks like Vontae Davis (Indianapolis Colts), Xavier Rhodes (Minnesota Vikings) and Josh Norman (Carolina Panthers) during that span. Historically speaking, bigger, more physical corners have tended to give Jones the most problems and those three would be considered the best of that type the Falcons faced in 2015.
Of course, Jones also saw a lackluster group of corners from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 13 in the midst of that four-game span, but one should note that the Bucs were one of the league’s better defenses when it came to preventing big plays.
The 45 big pass plays (20 or more yards) the Bucs allowed last season was tied for the third lowest of any team in the league. The “Tampa-2” defense they employed was effective at keeping Jones in check in Week 13 with a lot of underneath receptions. Those are the types of receptions that opposing defenses are more than willing to concede to Jones.
It’s worth noting that the Vikings and Panthers were also two other teams that were also very effective at not allowing big pass plays last season. The Vikings only gave up 47 pass plays of 20 or more yards last season and the Panthers 53. When factoring in the number of total pass attempts, the Panthers rate of allowing big pass plays was the fourth best in the league. The Bucs ranked fifth and the Vikings eighth in that same category.
The Colts were among the league’s worst teams in allowing big plays, tying for the most big pass plays allowed last season with 64 and ranking 30th in terms of rate allowed.
At first glance Jones’ production in that Colts game suggests he played very well given he caught nine passes for 160 yards, however one would not notice that most of Jones’ production came early in that game.
The Falcons of course blew a 21-7 lead in the final 20 minutes of that Week 11 Colts game. Before the Colts cut the lead to 21-14 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter, Jones had caught seven passes on nine targets for 130 yards. But thereafter with the game close, Jones managed to snag just two receptions on six targets for 30 yards in the fourth quarter. The Falcons offense stagnated thanks to increased Colts pressure made it harder to find Jones.
Jones’ Drop in Production Contribute to Ryan’s High Turnover Rate
It’s also notable that during that third quadrant, Ryan also saw an increase in the amount of turnovers he generated. Ryan threw seven interceptions during that four-game span, which amounted to rate of an interception on 4.5 percent of his pass attempts. That’s notable because Ryan’s interception rate throughout the rest of 2015 was 2.0 percent, which is commensurate with Ryan’s career interception rate of 2.4 percent.
It’s likely not a coincidence that was also the portion of the season where Ryan had the most struggles of completing passes in Jones’ direction. As noted above, Ryan’s completion percentage on throws targeted to Jones during that four-game run was 59.2 percent, which is a significant dip from where Ryan’s completion percentage on throws to Jones was at the start and end of the season. Ryan completed a combined 75.3 percent of his throws to Jones in the first and fourth quadrants.
One can see Ryan’s production on throws when not targeting Jones also in those quadrants:
Matt Ryan 2015 Production (minus Julio Jones) by "Quadrant"Looking at Matt Ryan's production broken down by "quadrant" when throwing to receivers other than Julio Jones
Ryan’s interception rate and yards per attempt to receivers not named Julio Jones were far lower during the third quadrant than they were throughout the rest of the season.
It’s easy to conclude that when teams were effectively able to contain Jones, they were often equally effective at containing the rest of the Falcons offense last season.
That’s one of the things that must change for the Falcons in 2016 and the expectations are that Sanu and Hardy’s emergences will achieve that.
This goes back to the original issue of whether or not the Falcons offense under Shanahan will be effective at exploiting both receivers at the same time since only one of them can play in the slot at any given point.
The reason why both players are more effective in the slot is because neither is particularly skilled at beating press coverage, which is far more common when lining up on the outside than inside.
Travis Benjamin Might Have Been the “Right” Receiver for the Falcons in 2016
Also neither have the ideal vertical speed to really get on top of opposing corners to really effectively challenge downfield. Between the two, Sanu is probably more effective there given his size will allow him to win on some downfield throws just because he can go out and get the ball. But the inability to reliably separate over the top does have a very limiting effect on how effective he is as a vertical passer.
That’s been evidenced by his production in Cincinnati over the past two seasons where Sanu has hardly been any more capable as a a vertical threat than White has been in that same span.
According to Pro Football Reference, Sanu caught 14 of 31 deep throws over the past two seasons for a completion rate of 45.2 percent. White over that same span caught 18 of 41 deep throws for a rate of 43.9 percent.
However the number of Sanu’s total targets (147) that were deep passes was 21.1 percent, which barely edges out White’s rate of 21 percent on 195 total targets.
Compare that to another prospective Falcons’ free-agent target in Travis Benjamin, who wound up signing with the San Diego Chargers instead. Benjamin caught 40.7 percent of his 59 deep throws over the past two seasons, yet they amounted to 34.5 percent of his total targets. That of course means that Benjamin specialized in stretching defenses.
How those numbers apply is made clear if extrapolated over 100 total targets, which is a healthy number for a No. 2 wide receiver in the NFL. Over 100 targets, Benjamin would be capable of generating about 4.5 more plays of 20-plus yards than Sanu.
That may seem like a trivial number, but anybody that has been a regular reader of this site over the past few years knows how much importance should be placed on the generating big plays on offense. A handful of big plays could equal to a handful of scores, which could result in a handful of wins, an argument I made this offseason when defending Shanahan’s offense.
Having that element in your offense, and thus forcing defenses to account for it cannot be underestimated. And equally the absence of that element cannot be understated when discussing how much easier it makes things for opposing defenses.
One could certainly more easily see Benjamin thriving on the outside in Atlanta because of his verticality, while also allowing Hardy to play where he’s best at: in the slot.
So in one sense the Falcons might be “settling” for a player like Sanu after swinging and missing on Benjamin. It does raises concerns over whether that will result in a significant dip for what the Falcons offense has the potential to be in a second year under Shanahan had they merely signed the right receiver this offseason.
Can Sanu Reinvent Himself As a Wide Receiver in Atlanta?
Now the pressure is on Shanahan to figure out a way to make Sanu a far more effective playmaker in Atlanta than what he was in Cincinnati. Which again hinges on concerns whether Shanahan can do that if he’s compelled to play Sanu more on the outside to keep from marginalizing Hardy as an inside, slot receiver.
The pressure will also be on Sanu to showcase that he truly was a marginalized player in Cincinnati and that his production over his career was not representative of his true skill by becoming a more effective vertical and outside threat than he’s shown to date.
But before anyone accuses the Bengals of misusing Sanu, it should not be forgotten that this was the book on Sanu coming out of Rutgers, when he was considered to be a prospect that lacked the ability to be a vertical threat. And while he played all over Rutgers’ offense, he often lined up in the slot and was very effective there.
Perhaps the more grounded and realistic take is that Sanu is who he is and the expectation that the Falcons will find a way to foster greater ability from him is overly optimistic. Especially given the fact that the Falcons will have an inexperienced Raheem Morris attempting to “coach him up” at the position.
If that happens and Sanu doesn’t show any greater effectiveness as an outside or vertical threat in 2016, then the pressure will be put on Hardy to pick up any slack.
But it would probably be even less realistic to expect Hardy to become the vertical or outside threat that the Falcons offense is sorely missing. Instead one should believe that if Hardy gets the bulk of the work in the slot over Sanu, he should find ways to make up for it in other ways.
That may not come in the form of big plays, but it might come in the way of becoming a reliable security blanket for Ryan. If Hardy can become a highly effective option on the underneath routes and over the middle, then it can somewhat offset the team’s need for an over-the-top threat.
Falcons’ 2016 Success Might Depend on Jones Becoming a Deep Specialist
If Hardy is highly effective at moving the chains while working out of the slot, then it means that perhaps Jones can be tailored into more of the team’s go-to downfield option. That could make Jones even more effective because so much of his (over)use a year ago came because he was also the team’s go-to option on the underneath and intermediate routes as well as downfield.
Ideally Hardy, Sanu, or a combination of the two will allow the Falcons to rely less on Jones to facilitate the bulk of the offense. Thus the Falcons won’t be in situations like they were throughout portions of the 2015 season where they were “dinking and dunking” with Jones.
As mentioned before, defenses are more than willing to concede shorter passes to Jones because it means that they’re not getting gashed for big yardage. It’s an oversimplification, but an appropriate rule of thumb to consider that every eight-yard completion to Jones represents a “win” for opposing defenses.
So perhaps Shanahan and the Falcons’ plan all along has been to take those types of plays off Jones’ plate this year and instead try to feed Hardy and/or Sanu on such plays. That would better utilize Jones’ game-changing ability as a downfield threat.
After all, Jones caught 57.1 percent of his deep throws for a total of 24 deep receptions last year according to Pro Football Reference. But only 20.7 percent of his total 203 targets were deep passes, a slightly smaller percentage than White’s usage over the past two years.
Back in 2012, when Jones was probably most effectively used as a deep threat for the Falcons, 29.7 percent of all of his targets were deep throws. Of course Jones’ effectiveness as a downfield threat worked to enhance the abilities of White and tight end Tony Gonzalez on the short and intermediate throws.
That means that even if Jones sees a significant reduction in his overall workload, he could still see a comparable rate of production on deep passes. Even if Jones’ total workload drops to 150 total targets this year, if 29.7 percent of them are deep passes and he manages to catch 57 percent of them, that means he can still catch roughly 25 deep passes this year.
So Jones’ production as a vertical threat could go unchanged even though he saw a 25 percent reduction in his overall workload. That’s potentially a great thing for the Falcons because he should be less inclined to break down early in the season as he did a year ago, which helped lead to the offensive struggles that the Falcons had throughout the middle portion of the season.
Sanu and Hardy Could Have Comparable but Lesser as White and Gonzalez
Now of course it wouldn’t be fair to expect either Hardy or Sanu in 2016 to be comparable to what either White or Gonzalez were in 2012 in terms of their overall effectiveness as “chain-movers.” Thus any expectation that the Falcons offense in 2016 is going to be on par with their 2012 unit is a pipe dream. Neither Hardy nor Sanu, even if maximized in Shanahan’s offense, are going to be anywhere close to the caliber of players that either White or Gonzalez were at their peak production nearly four years ago.
Jones still will do the bulk of the heavy lifting in regard to the Falcons offense this season in comparison to what was relatively an equal share in 2012. However the hope is that Hardy and/or Sanu can relieve some of the pressure to the extent that the Falcons offense doesn’t go into the tank when it’s not be carried by Jones as it did often a year ago.
The league average in 2015 for quarterback rating was 88.4. The fact that Ryan barely edged that in just one of four quadrants when targeting other receivers beyond Jones speaks to the lack of a strong supporting cast and the quarterbacks’ own struggles last season.
The most realistic hope for this season in regards to what Hardy and Sanu can be is that they can lead the group of receivers to allow Ryan to be at least average if not better when Jones isn’t being targeted.
Yet again, there is still the lingering question of whether Sanu and Hardy are both capable of thriving in the Falcons offense if one is relegated to playing on the outside more than what past endeavors suggest he should. Sitting here in May, it’s impossible to predict how that question gets answered.
I have little doubt that the Falcons offense is capable of making one of them successful in 2016 as a chain-mover. However I have many more doubts over whether Shanahan’s offense is capable of making both players successful, which will be necessary if the Falcons intend to be reminiscent of the 2012 offensive attack.
Unlike 2012, the Falcons aren’t going to be able to ride their 2016 offense deep into the playoffs. But if Hardy and Sanu can improve the passing game by a significant margin, there’s every reason to believe that at least getting to the playoffs is an achievable feat.