The quarterback, running back, and fullback positions have already been discussed, making it time to move on to the second to last of the offensive skill positions: wide receiver. It would be a tough argument to suggest that the Falcons don’t feature the league’s premier pair of wide receivers in Julio Jones and Roddy White. Both players are coming off spectacular 2012 seasons and both are under contract at least through the 2014 season. So it’s conceivable that the Falcons can boast the premier duo for at least two more seasons.
But the Falcons depth at wide receiver is questionable and may need to be addressed. The team re-signed Harry Douglas last off-season to a four-year deal. While Douglas is a capable reserve that will make plays from time to time, he’s not the caliber of receiver that is a consistent option from week to week. Douglas fills his particularly niche ably, but he doesn’t really possess a skillset that extends outside the niche. That niche consists mainly of a slot receiver that does his best work on the short and intermediate routes. When Douglas is asked to go vertical or play on the outside, he essentially becomes a fairly middling option for the team. It would behoove the Falcons to find a player that is complementary to Douglas that does fit that outside/vertical mold. Such a player could allow the Falcons to make more use of either Jones or White in the slot, something that has proven effective over the past two years. And in the event of an injury to either starter it would still give the team a good explosive option downfield that will prevent the team from resorting to the dink and dunk style that has limited them in the past. Not to mention the likely departure of Tony Gonzalez also means that the Falcons may have to rely on multiple options to fill that void.
The Falcons could opt to find this player in free agency or the draft. Neither avenue seems to be a better option than the other. Free agency probably will cost a bit more, but you certainly are getting a more proven commodity that can contribute immediately. If the Falcons opt to draft someone, the value there is the potential that cheaper player can potentially develop into a starter in 2015 or beyond. Roddy White will be 33 when his contract expires at the end of 2014, and typically receivers of his caliber can produce as starters up to around age 35 or 36. So while he may still have something left in the tank, by 2015 one can expect to see diminishing returns. Thus it behooves the Falcons that if possible, they can start to groom his eventual replacement sooner rather than later. Another benefit of signing a free agent is the potential that player could challenge or surpass Douglas on the depth chart and thus represent a clear and immediate upgrade to the spot. On the other hand with a rookie, you run the risk that the player makes little to no contribution in his first year, and the possibility that he never does.
Kevin Cone, Drew Davis, and Kerry Meier all will also be in camp next summer as all three are signed through 2013. All three players have flashed ability to provide depth for the team, but not to a degree that suggests any are ready to be significant options in the Falcons passing game next year. All three players’ primary value to the Falcons is on special teams, but again due to the potential departure of Gonzalez, there is room for guys to start contributing offensively. Cone possesses a skillset that probably best fits what the Falcons might be looking for in a fourth option due to his size and vertical speed, but he has struggled with consistency and catching the ball in his short time in Atlanta. Davis possesses good quickness suggesting his potential may lie in the slot, but he is still unpolished. Meier is a big target with good hands, but has marginal speed and quickness to suggest he poses much of a threat to NFL defenses. James Rodgers, Tim Toone, and Marcus Jackson will also be in camp next year. And while they have developmental potential, the Falcons probably can’t expect to get anything more out of them that they didn’t get out of Cone, Davis, or Meier this past year.
Now, I doubt this position will be a high priority for the Falcons. They may not consider it a need at all. They certainly did not a year ago. Last year, they brought 11 receivers to training camp, and currently 9 wideouts are under contract for the team. They may just bet that between the half dozen guys not named Sharod, Harold, and Quintorris, competition will be enough to get more from this position group. Personally, I’m not sure if that’s a good bet.