The Atlanta Falcons desperately need an infusion of youth at the wide receiver position. The team invested little in the position during the tenure of Mike Smith, and that will need to change under new head coach Dan Quinn.
The Falcons have drafted a league-low number of wide receivers over the past several years. Since 2009, the Falcons have drafted just two receivers, when the average NFL team has drafted roughly six. Since 2011, the Falcons have drafted no receivers, when the rest of the league has drafted an average of roughly three.
With assurances that Julio Jones will be playing in Atlanta for many years to come, the questions at this position involve whether the Falcons will add more young receivers beside him.
Roddy White has been a long-time fixture at the position for the Falcons, but is coming off a very disappointing performance in 2014. The Falcons need to start planning for a future without the team’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
White was practically a no-show for the first half of the year, marred by injuries which prevented him from reliably separating from coverage. That marks two consecutive seasons where White has battled injuries after seven years of remarkable durability, having not missed a single game from 2005 to 2012. The reality is that age 33, White’s body won’t recover as quickly as it once did. Injuries that White once could tough his way through now are having a dramatically negative effect on his play on the field.
Frankly, White is already in if not approaching the twilight of his career. The contract extension that White signed last summer assures that he’ll be back for at least another season. But he’ll need to have a dramatically improved play to assure his return in 2016.
And with that in mind, this year marks a perfect opportunity for the Falcons to at least attempt groom his replacement. Rookie receivers are notoriously slow starters and thus 2015 offers a good opportunity for any rookie to have a “redshirt” season to get his feet wet in the NFL before he can be expected to make significant contributions.
But replacing White is easier said than done and also raises questions about what the Falcons do with their other receivers. Devin Hester certainly will return if for no other reason than his abilities on special teams. On offense, Hester flashed big-play potential in 2014 but he’s only going to be relied upon as the fourth option at best in the passing game.
So the big question arises whether the Falcons want a newcomer to serve in that third receiver role, or will they opt to retain Harry Douglas for another year. Douglas turns 31 at the start of the 2015 season, which also marks the final year of his contract. The Falcons can save roughly $1.8 million in cap space by releasing Douglas this offseason. But if the team opts to do so, the reasons won’t be because of the cap benefits but rather because they are wanting to clear an opportunity for any newcomer.
And that newcomer may not necessarily be a rookie. While the probability is high that the Falcons will draft a developmental wide receiver at some point in the 2015 draft, the Falcons could also opt to sign a free agent. But given the expectation that the Falcons are prepared to pay Julio Jones an exorbitant sum before his contract expires in 2016, they may not be so willing to pay a large fee to a top-level free agent. While free agents like Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin or Torrey Smith would certainly help the team add more explosiveness to their offense, none will come cheap.
If and when the Falcons do target a wide receiver in the draft, expect them to prioritize explosiveness. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has made it known that opposing teams will be compelled to defend the deep ball this season when playing the Falcons. And right now besides Jones and Hester, none of the Falcons current receivers really impose such fear.
Ideally, the Falcons will look to add someone that is capable of lining up on the outside and stretch the field. That way, the team could move White inside to the slot where given his declining abilities, he might become more successful due to the chances that he’ll be covered by lesser slot corners, linebackers and/or safeties.
But it’s very clear that the Falcons need to forge a different path at wide receiver. Outside Jones, their core group of receivers are older, declining veterans. And the team has not been very successful with developing young receivers behind them with undrafted free agents like Drew Davis, Kevin Cone, James Rodgers, Darius Johnson and Bernard Reedy. It’s time for the team to draft someone and see if that works better.