The Falcons have a need at wide receiver in order to bolster their depth. They could opt to do this via the draft or free agency, or possibly both. Given their needs elsewhere, it’s likely if they choose to draft this position it may have to wait until the third day of the draft. That wouldn’t be terrible given players such as Mike Williams, Antonio Brown, Denarius Moore, Cecil Shorts, Chris Givens, and Jacoby Ford have all been taken in Rounds four through seven since the draft moved to the 3-day format in 2010. But for every Antonio Brown there is more than a half dozen receivers like the Falcons very own Tim Toone and Kerry Meier that have made very limited contributions in the NFL.
That is why if the Falcons want to upgrade their wide receiver depth, it may be smarter to sign a veteran in free agency rather than hoping they stumble upon the next Brown or Shorts. But that is by no means a sure thing either as wide receivers are notorious for fizzling out when teams try to dip into the free agent pool.
The Falcons already have three good receivers in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas. While there is room to upgrade over Douglas, the simple fact is that it would take a significant signing to think a player is going to come in and supplant Douglas as the team’s new No. 3 receiver, requiring a significant investment of money. And given the Falcons have already invested a good amount of money in their current trio (roughly $75 million), it doesn’t seem like they will be looking to spend a bunch of money.
Another issue that brings up is that any fourth receiver is likely going to have to play on special teams, specifically in coverage which has been the case every year that Mike Smith has been here. The perfect receiver is someone that can not only help take the top off a defense on the outside, but also isn’t afraid to run full speed downfield as a gunner on punt coverage or kickoffs. That is a fairly specific job description, and probably eliminates a large number of players from the Falcons’ potential list of candidates.
In terms of taking the top off a defense, a name that immediately jumps to the top of the free agentt list is Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace. But Wallace is seeking a huge contract, and certainly won’t be on the Falcons radar. Brian Hartline (Dolphins) is another prospective free agent that has made a name going down the field, but his expected price tag also will probably be too rich for the Falcons.
Donnie Avery (Colts) could function as a poor man’s Wallace, because he definitely has speed to burn. He’s coming off his best season as a pro with a 60-catch season as the Colts de facto No. 2 receiver. But Avery is an undersized receiver that struggles to win in traffic similar to Douglas. Coupled with his inconsistent hands, it would be at best a lateral move.
Kevin Ogletree (Cowboys) had a breakout game in Week 1 against the Giants, but was inconsistent the rest of the year, only have three more games the rest of the season where he had more than 30 yards receiving. Not to mention, he’s not really a burner. Speaking of the Giants, they have a pair of free agents that could fit the bill. Domenik Hixon has done well in a limited role, often as a field stretcher for Eli Manning who loves to throw deep. The bonus of Hixon is that he also is comfortable playing on special teams as a returner on both kickoffs and punts, as well as coverage. Ramses Barden is the Giants’ other impending free agent. Barden was supposed to replace Plaxico Burress as their big target on the outside, but never lived up to that billing. Barden has struggled with inconsistency as a Giant, but he did have a good performance this past year in a Week 3 Thursday night game against the Carolina Panthers (9 catches, 138 yards). Barden could use a change of scenery. His 6-6 frame makes him an effective downfield receiver despite lacking ideal vertical speed. He also could offer some potential in the redzone. The problem is that one of the reasons why Barden’s playing time has been limited in New York is that he doesn’t play special teams.
Another free agent receiver that could be a nice reclamation project would be Mohamed Massaquoi (Browns). Massaquoi, a former second round pick out of Georgia could be described as an outright failure in Cleveland. But Massaquoi does possess a lot of the physical tools that merited his high selection, including good size and speed to challenge defenses downfield. While he never lived up to his billing as a starter in Cleveland, his production level would be more than adequate as a fourth option. And yes, he is cousins with Jonathan Massaquoi in case you were wondering.
Brandon Tate (Bengals) and Ted Ginn (49ers) are two speedy wideouts that can also help out in the return game. Tate is another impressive athlete that has just never really put it all together as a receiver to take advantage of his skills. Ginn might not be a great fit as he doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to toughness and reliability despite being one of the fastest players in the league.
Of the potential free agents, one of the few others that is experienced on special teams coverage is Minnesota’s Devin Aromashodu. He has made a living as a reserve that can challenge downfield. Unlike many of the others, Aromashodu always seems to be making plays, but for whatever reason has never progressed past being a situational reserve. He’ll turn 29 in May, so he’s been around the block a few times. But of all these low-level signings, he is probably the most reliable offensive threat. One thing I really like about Aromashodu is his ball skills which contrasts him to Douglas, who’s smaller stature makes it harder for him to make plays downfield because the windows he can present are smaller for Ryan to fit the ball into. Similarly to Jones and White, Ryan could trust Aromashodu to go and get the ball.
Two other older veterans are Devery Henderson (Saints) and Randy Moss (49ers). Henderson has done a good job over the years as the occasional deep threat for Drew Brees in the Saints offense. But it appears his skills are starting to decline at this point. He’ll turn 31 in March, and he would probably have been an ideal pickup if you could rewind the clock three or so years. Moss is a big name that can still stretch a defense. But his me-first attitude certainly wouldn’t mesh with the powers that be in Flowery Branch and thus he won’t be an option.
Devin Hester (Bears) might get the axe this off-season due to his lack of development as a receiver and at age 30 may no longer be the fearsome return specialist he once was. He’s by no means poor there, but his reputation likely means he won’t come cheap. Michael Jenkins (Vikings) probably will be cut this off-season. While he doesn’t bring much as a receiver at this point in his career, Jenkins did showcase himself to be a capable special teams player early in his Falcon career. It probably wouldn’t take that much convincing to get him to accept a much lesser role than he once had in Atlanta if he was to rejoin the team. There’s certainly no fear that he won’t mesh in the locker room. Mario Manningham (49ers) did not have the impact expected in San Francisco, and coupled with busted knee they might part ways with him this off-season. Manningham is comfortable working as a third option that can get downfield, as he did with the Giants in 2011. But his December knee injury (torn ACL and PCL) means there’s no guarantee he will produce even if he does manage to make it back in time for the 2013 season. There is only one Adrian Peterson, and thus anyone that would sign Manningham might be doing so to help them out in 2014, not next year.
Nate Washington (Titans) is another potential release candidate this off-season. After a strong 2011 campaign, Washington reverted back to his more mediocre ways in 2012. But he still is a very effective vertical threat that is comfortable working in the slot as well as the outside. Of many of the candidates I’ve discussed previously, he’s one of the few that could supplant Douglas as the No. 3 receiver. But he’s still on the good side of the 30, meaning there is probably some receiver-needy team that is willing to pay him to be their starter, thus pricing him out of the Falcons range.
Another potential reclamation project would be Tampa Bay’s Arrelious Benn if he is dumped this off-season. Benn is another gifted athlete that as a rookie in 2010 was able to provide the occasional big play down the field. But injuries sapped his 2012 season, and despite upside to be a good playmaker off the bench, he’s a roll of dice due to those durability concerns. If there is a positive for Benn, he can play on special teams and if healthy enough to suit up, would be motivated for at least two games on the Falcons 2013 schedule.
All in all, the Falcons will have options if they want to try and provide an immediate upgrade to their wide receiver depth. If they are willing to spend a little bit of money, then they definitely can do so. If they are looking for someone cheap with speed that can add depth and play on special teams, then their two best options are probably Devin Aromashodu or Domenik Hixon. If they are looking for a young receiver with some developmental potential as a starter down the road, then maybe Ramses Barden or Mohamed Massaquoi make the most sense.
Or the Falcons could stand pat and just hope a better candidate falls to them on the third day of the draft.