Many mock drafts project the Falcons to target Troy wideout Jerrel Jernigan in the second round of the draft. And admittedly, I have pegged him as a potential Falcon pick in my recent 7-round mock.
But in truth, Jernigan is not a great fit in Atlanta. At least not with the way the team currently runs their offense.
The last thing the Falcons need to be looking for is another pure slot receiver. This is essentially the problem that the team has run into with Harry Douglas. Douglas has yet to emerge as a strong option on the outside. And that’s the area of most glaring need at wide receiver. The Falcons need a player on the outside that can make teams pay for paying too much attention to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
Michael Jenkins has failed to be that option. And while Jenkins had a decent season after a dismal 2009 campaign, he’s not a guy that is going to make plays if the spotlight is put upon him.
Jernigan is an explosive receiver, but it remains to be seen if he can be an explosive receiver on the outside. Primarily what he did at Troy was run a lot of shorter routes and use his speed and burst after the catch to make plays. This is the same type of receiver that Douglas is.
Now, Douglas struggled throughout 2010. But he did his best work when he was running shorter routes. On passes that went 10 or less yards, Douglas caught 15 out of 28 attempts (53.6% catch rate) and totaled 97 yards after the catch for a total of 138 yards. On passes where the ball went beyond 10 yards, Douglas had just 7 catches on 25 attempts (28% catch rate) with 31 yards after the catch for 156 total yards. Getting Douglas more work on the short passing game will make him a more effective receiver, and to a level where he’ll be at the very least acceptable if not very good in that realm.
Instead, the prototype for what the Falcons should be looking for on the outside is a big, tall, physical receiver that has speed and burst to get downfield and stretch the defense. Current and recent NFL receivers that fit this bill are Marques Colston and Plaxico Burress. Jenkins is tall with decent speed to challenge downfield, but he doesn’t separate well from corners and doesn’t have the ball skills and body control to go and get the ball. That is why Matt Ryan needs more than anything out of a big, vertical option.
Jernigan is not this type of player. Players like Miami’s Leonard Hankerson, PItt’s Jonathan Baldwin, Indiana’s Tandon Doss, UNC’s Greg Little, and Tennessee’s Denarius Moore are much more this type of receiver than Jernigan. Now each one has their own faults and weaknesses. Baldwin is similar to Jenkins in that he has the high-cut build that will make it hard for him to separate from corners under 15 yards. Doss and Little too are more used to running shorter routes despite their size, but they have very good ability after the catch. Little is fairly raw as a receiver and may take extra time to develop. Hankerson and Moore probably don’t have as much upside as the other guys do as playmakers, but are good complementary options that have very little risk involved with them.
Another positive about guys like Hankerson, Doss, and Little, they are comfortable playing in the slot. So they can come onto the team, immediately push Douglas in that role, and within a year or two, start to push if not replace Jenkins on the outside.
This is not me saying that Jernigan won’t be a good pro. But the Falcons offense is one that unlike other teams (like say New England), condenses the field rather than spreads it out. Our use of two-tight ends, emphasis on the power running game, and the fact that we don’t use a ton of four-wide sets outside obvious passing downs means that quick, slot players like Jernigan don’t have the spacing to be as effective in Atlanta as they would be elsewhere. Even a player like DeSean Jackson would not nearly be as good in the Falcons offense as he is in Philadelphia, because their offense focuses on spreading out defenses. They’ve marginalized the second tight end and made the fullback into more of a receiver/runner than a lead blocker. If Jernigan was to go to an offense like that he could be very good.
But unless the Falcons coaches want to do a complete 180 on their offensive identity by scrapping the power running attack and dumping Michael Turner, they need to look at other options at wideout besides players like Jerrel Jernigan, Randall Cobb, and Titus Young.
The Falcons are going to have to face serious questions in the future about what sort of offensive identity they want to have. Matt Ryan, like Tom Brady and Drew Brees, among others doesn’t have the live arm that is going to thrive in a pure, vertical offense. A more spread offense that relies on quicker guys to make plays after the catch is much more ideal for him. But the coaching staff seems intent on being a more physical power-oriented running team that still makes ample use of blocking tight ends and a physical lead blocker like Ovie Mughelli. Now, there may be a point in the very near future that players like Turner and Mughelli are no longer Falcons, and that would be the point where the Falcons can start to drift towards an offensive attack more akin to that of New England with a base 3-wide package and a lot more single back sets.
And the problem and dilemma the Falcons face is that while a player like Jernigan can be very valuable in that offense down the road, at least early in his Falcon career you’re not going to get quite as much out of him. And because of the proliferation of the spread offense in college football, you don’t need to get that player now because there is always going to be players like Percy Harvin, Golden Tate, Jordan Shipley, Jerrel Jernigan, Randall Cobb, etc. available to be added. Instead, the Falcons need to focus on what is going to help them more immediately at wide receiver, and that’s going to be one of the bigger wideouts.
In the end, I think the Falcons would get much more value and a return on their investment if they were to pass on a player like Jernigan or Randall Cobb in Round 2 and try to nab someone like Denarius Moore in Round 3. In fact, I think a player like Moore is worthier of a second round pick as far as the Falcons are concerned than someone like Jernigan.