The Atlanta Falcons signed wide receiver Devin Hester earlier this offseason, in a move that should bolster not only their special teams, but also their depth at wide receiver. But has that signing really made a substantial improvement to their depth at the latter position?
The Falcons depth at the position essentially boils down to whether or not they can rely on any of their current backups to step up if or when one of their starters goes down with an injury. Last year, the team’s top wideout Julio Jones missed the final 11 games due to a foot injury, which he is still recovering from. Last season long-time stalwart Roddy White, nursing ankle and hamstring injuries, did not look himself until a breakout performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13.
Harry Douglas filled in during both players’ absences. Douglas produced at a high level leading the team with 85 catches and 1,067 yards, but in the six games in which he was functionally their lead receiver, the team scored an average of 17.5 points. In the other 10 games played last season where either Jones or White were healthy and on the field, they averaged 24.8 points, a touchdown more. That may not seem like much, but a single touchdown per game essentially separates what would be considered a top 10 offense in the NFL from one at the very bottom.
In Chicago for the five years prior to 2013, the Bears tried to take advantage of Hester’s dynamic explosiveness as a returner on offense at wide receiver. It did not work effectively as Hester had a single 100-yard game over that span. In 2013, Hester opted to focus on special teams rather than continuing to strive to be an effective offensive weapon. Was a coincidence then that thanks to the emergence of second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery in Hester’s absence, the Bears offense scored more points this season than any other Bears offense ever? Probably not.
If Douglas and Hester’s past careers show us anything, it tells us that in the event of injuries that sideline both Jones and White, the Falcons offense will take a significant dip. That means that there is still room for improvement in terms of depth at wide receiver.
The 2014 draft class is considered one of the deepest ever at the wide receiver position. That certainly allows things to fall into place if the Falcons plan to address their depth at the position.
Targeting a player that can line up outside the numbers and help stretch the defense would bring something new to the roster. The Falcons already have plenty of guys that can line up inside in the slot. Douglas, Hester and Johnson are at their best playing inside, given their lack of size and struggles to beat press coverage outside. And White and Jones certainly have also made their share of plays when they’ve been asked to play in the slot over the years.
Another slot receiver would simply be overkill. The Falcons sorely missed a playmaker that could line up outside, beat press coverage and stretch the defense last year when Jones was out. White is slowing down and still occasionally provides those vertical plays, but is much more of a pure possession wideout at this point in his career.
In the event of another Jones injury, something that has occurred all three years he has been in the league, the Falcons should have someone on the roster that can do some of the things he can do. Few can do all of the things that he does, that’s what makes him Julio Jones. But a player that can at least mimic his role in the offense, which is a player that forces defenses to have to respect the deep ball can open up things for the other receivers that do the underneath stuff.
But any rookie added may not be able to make major contributions right away. Rookie receivers are notorious for a slow transition into the next level, having to refine their route-running and ability to read coverages, critical to success in the NFL.
But the earlier said player is added to the roster, the sooner he can eventually contribute. And even if he’s not able to make huge strides in 2014, he certainly can start to impact in 2015. White is no spring chicken, and even with a contract extension, he’ll be turning 33 in November. There may only be a few more years where he can be expected to contribute as a starter. If the Falcons can begin developing his heir apparent, by the time White might opt to hang it up a few years down the road, that player will have an easy and smooth transition into the starting lineup.
One thing is for certain, between Douglas, Hester, Johnson, and Davis that eventual replacement is not currently on the roster. It would be prudent of the Falcons to add him via this year’s draft.