We are still a few weeks away from the start of the Atlanta Falcons training camp, which means that it’s that dead point in the year where there isn’t much going on in terms of NFL news. And that which does occur, typically isn’t very positive.
So to get inspiration for writing this week’s article, I went back and re-read some old takeaways columns from this same point last summer. One thing stood out in re-reading (or rather skimming) some of those articles: I was somewhat obsessed with the Falcons wide receiver position and depth.
The Falcons aversion to drafting wideouts was something that I pointed out last June, as they were at the bottom of the league in terms of trying to develop young weapons over the tenure of former head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. I also seemed convinced that Darius Johnson was capable of being the first candidate worthy of being developed. Unfortunately, Johnson abruptly called it quits on his Falcon career before last summer’s camp opened. I also opined about the inability of the Falcons to target the right kind of receivers that matched up with quarterback Matt Ryan’s playing style.
Quite a bit has changed over the past year. With the arrival of new head coach Dan Quinn the Falcons finally drafted a wide receiver, their first in four years. Instead of an undrafted rookie like Johnson, the Falcons now have a talented young, developmental receiver in Justin Hardy. In addition to Hardy, the Falcons also signed veteran free-agent receiver Leonard Hankerson this offseason. So it begs the question, is either player a better fit for Ryan?
The answer is yes. One of the topics I touched on after the draft was the fact that the player that Hardy is tasked with replacing, Harry Douglas, was not a great fit for Ryan and the Falcons offense. As I noted then, passes attempted to Douglas were twice as likely to result in an interception than passes that Ryan attempted to every other receiver that wasn’t a running back.
Hardy Gives Ryan a Trustworthy Receiving Option
In evaluating Hardy’s college tape, it was obvious that his biggest strengths were his strong, reliably hands and body control. Those skills should make Hardy a much more reliable option in traffic than Douglas was, despite his also being undersized.
One of my bigger criticisms of Ryan over the years has been his unwillingness to test his arm strength by making tight window throws downfield. When he is given a clean pocket that can allow him to step into his throws, he’s much more willing to push the ball downfield. However if the pocket gets muddy, Ryan will typically check the ball down.
If presented with a target that might test Ryan’s ability to zip a pass into a tight window, he has a tendency to hesitate. Meaning that if the only way Ryan is likely to complete a pass is by throwing a laser to his intended target, he’ll usually look for another option because Ryan doesn’t possess said laser in terms of arm strength.
Essentially, this all means that Ryan isn’t a “gunslinger.” Now the lack of that mentality is a major reason why Ryan has been one of the league’s best at protecting the football over the years. But there are times when a quarterback needs to be more aggressive and Ryan hasn’t consistently been able to.
On the relatively rare occasions when Ryan does show this willingness to throw into tight windows, it’s overwhelmingly in situations where he sees a one-on-one matchup and trusts that the receiver will come down with the football. In the cases of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, that trust is easy. All three receivers were or are among the best at their respective positions. But in the cases of Douglas and the other receivers the Falcons have fielded over Ryan’s seven-year career that trust has been lacking.
Hardy possesses the tools and traits to suggest that he could become one of the former, developing into a receiver that Ryan implicitly trusts. The windows won’t be as tight with Hardy as they were with Douglas, who routinely struggled to win in traffic and had a limited catch radius.
Hankerson’s Size Will Benefit Falcons and Ryan
As for Hankerson, his size should help him when it comes to making plays in traffic, even those his hands can be erratic. While Hankerson isn’t a player that is going to dominate in traffic the way a player like Anquan Boldin might, he definitely presents a larger target window for Ryan to throw to. It’s going to be a lot harder for cornerbacks like Tramaine Brock to outmuscle Hankerson as they did when facing Douglas.
The additions of Hardy and Hankerson are a notable investment in the Falcon’s wide receiver depth, an investment that had been sorely lacking in a number of years. The Falcons should be better able to weather one of the storms that have plagued them the past two seasons, which is their lack of depth at wide receiver.
In 2013, losing both Jones and White for what amounted to roughly two-thirds of the season was devastating to the Falcons’ offensive production. A year ago, White was noticeably limited throughout the early part of the season, and even an injured Douglas’ absence was felt.
Should White continue to be limited this year and/or the team miss Jones for a couple of games, they will be in a better position to deal with those injuries than they have been over the past two seasons. However, the Falcons aren’t in a great position as far as their wide receiver depth goes, because one notable ingredient is missing: a deep threat.
Falcons Still Missing Another Deep Threat Besides Jones
Jones represents the team’s best and too often only vertical option. His deep speed and dynamic abilities make him one of the premier wideouts in the entire league and one of the more difficult matchups. Even arguably the league’s most athletic cornerback Patrick Peterson struggled mightily trying to check Jones one-on-one last year.
Ryan saw an uptick in production last year in terms of his vertical passing abilities. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan completed a career-best 45 percent of his deep throws of 20 or more yards in 2014. A total of 11 percent of all his pass attempts were deep throws last year, the most since his rookie year when that number eclipsed 13 percent.
But most of that production came on the back, or rather the hands and legs of Jones. Over half (52 percent) of Ryan’s deep throws were attempted to Jones. Jones also accounted 58 percent of the completions, 61 percent of the yards and 80 percent of the touchdowns Ryan had on deep balls last year.
The best illustration of how reliant the Falcons were on for Jones’ vertical capabilities was the fact that 23 percent of the 156 passes thrown Jones’ way were deep passes. Comparatively, only seven percent of Ryan’s other 472 pass attempts were deep throws. That means that Jones was more than three times as likely to see a vertical pass as every other player on the team’s roster.
Ryan had a league-low 6.6 percent of his throws go deep in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus’ eight years of data, only two quarterbacks have been more conservative over that span: Josh Freeman in 2011 (6.5 percent) and Alex Smith last year (5.2 percent). The fact that Ryan had a similar deep rate to receivers not named Jones only illustrates that without him, the Falcons would have been alarmingly a conservative offense last year.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has stressed that the team will re-emphasize the deep ball in the new offense that he is installing. But the truth is that is likely going to be tied heavily to Jones’ health. With a healthy Jones, the Falcons should have no problem chucking it deep at their leisure. Without him, it’s going to be a lot harder.
Hester and Hankerson Offer Best Vertical Options After Jones
Hardy’s addition isn’t going to help matters in that regard because he isn’t blessed with vertical speed. He’ll likely play in the slot and be asked to work the short and intermediate routes that were a regularly aspect of his success at East Carolina.
Hankerson does offer more vertical capabilities. While productive on deep passes over his stint with the Washington Redskins, Hankerson isn’t truly a deep threat. Over three seasons, only about 13 percent of all his targets were deep passes. Comparatively, White had 14 percent of his targets go deep a year ago when he was severely limited by a knee injury.
The reality is that the Falcons’ best deep threat in the event that Jones is out of the lineup may be Devin Hester. Hester saw an increase in his production on deep passes a year ago than his days in Chicago, but it was only slight. Over his final six years with the Bears, Hester caught 25 percent of his deep passes while averaging 8.5 yards per deep attempt. In Atlanta last year, Hester caught 38 percent of his deep passes and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt. It’s an improvement, but only slight. Hester still remains inconsistent as a vertical option despite the speed to challenge secondaries.
The Falcons will largely be reliant on a combination of Hester and Hankerson to help keep the deep ball going should Jones miss time. The team might also turn towards second-year receiver Bernard Reedy. Shanahan was successful in getting production last year from undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel, whose smaller stature didn’t limit his speed to get behind defenses and make some big plays. Reedy and Gabriel are similar players thanks to their shared smaller statures, excellent speed and comfort with the ball in their hands. Gabriel was one of two (Dallas’ Terrance Williams being the other) receivers last year that had 10 or more receptions of 20 or more yards on less than 40 receptions, indicating he’s very prone to making big plays.
Reedy is unlikely to get the opportunities that Gabriel received a year ago, since Atlanta’s receiving corps is much stronger than the Browns was a year ago. But in the event of an injury to one of the Falcons’ starters, that could open the door for a player like Reedy to get the chance to be utilized like Gabriel.
One of the reasons why the Falcons crashed and burned in 2013 was largely due to their inability to exploit the deep ball successfully with Jones out of the lineup in the second half of the season.
The team’s decision to sign Brian Robiskie following Jones’ season-ending injury was a major contributing factor to why the offense went into the tank. With White also missing time after Jones’ injury, the Ryan and the Falcons became super conservative as only 4.9 percent of his pass attempts over the next six games were deep passes. It’s no coincidence that Ryan’s production tanked during that span, putting up production on par with Jacksonville’s Chad Henne near the bottom of the league. It made the Falcons’ offense very easy to defend when opponents knew they weren’t going to throw deep and couldn’t successfully do so even if they tried.
It will be important that Shanahan doesn’t let that happen again. One way he can do that is by pushing Ryan to take more chances downfield. In the past, I’ve illustrated how much more successful the Falcons offense is when it is able to generate big plays. It leads to a much higher probability of scoring than a dink-and-dunk style that was regularly seen in Atlanta under Mike Smith.
Surprisingly, Brian Hoyer proved to be the quarterback coached by Shanahan that was most willing to go downfield. In 2014, Hoyer attempted 15.2 percent of his passes downfield, which ranked seventh in the NFL last year above the likes of notable deep-ball throwers in Colin Kaepernick (14.4 percent) and Andrew Luck (14.3).
Play Action Likely to Increase Under Shanahan
A big part of that was thanks to play-action passing. Slightly over 29 percent of Hoyer’s pass attempts were off play action according to Pro Football Focus, which was the fifth highest in the NFL last year. Play action was a regular feature of Shanahan’s offense during his final years in Washington, with Robert Griffin III ranking first and fourth in 2012 and 2013, respectively in terms of usage of play action passing compared to the rest of the league.
Ryan and the Falcons used the most play action in 2014 since Pro Football Focus started collecting that data in 2012, with 18.2 percent of their passing game coming off play action. But that number was still only good for 29th most among 39 quarterbacks last year.
As noted before, Ryan doesn’t have a natural proclivity for chucking it deep on his own. But by utilizing more play action, it can somewhat mitigate that issue. While Pro Football Focus doesn’t have the data to back it up, it’s unlikely that it’s a coincidence that 2008 marked the year where Ryan attempted his highest rate of vertical passes along with an offense that was dominated by Michael Turner’s rushing success on the ground.
It will be important for the Falcons offense to become more balanced and be able to establish the running game to set up those play-action opportunities. Thus it’s not any of the receivers the Falcons added this offseason that will help improve their big play potential in 2015, but rather their additions to the running game that can make the most impact.
Rookie Tevin Coleman may in fact be the team’s best option if a time comes when the team is going to have to replace Jones’ presence in the offense. One can expect the Falcons and Shanahan to lean more heavily on the running game in the hopes that it creates more play-action opportunities that the lesser receivers can potentially exploit.
In the future, the Falcons will likely continue to add receivers that have the ability to challenge defenses deep. Getting another option on the roster that on his own can create vertical opportunities like Jones can on his own will be important. That player is lacking today, but there are signs for hope that the Falcons will take significant strides forward to become a more explosive offense, a goal that proved elusive under the former regime.