Team Needs: Falcons Need Upgrade of Size and Speed at Wide Receiver

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas

The Atlanta Falcons offense was limited in 2013 due to major injuries suffered at the wide receiver position. The Falcons two most prominent weapons in Julio Jones and Roddy White essentially played five games each this year. Jones played in the first five games before a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. And White was nursing various injuries throughout the year and didn’t appear close to healthy until the final games of the year. That left the team without a true No. 1 weapon for the middle third of the year.

Harry Douglas did his best to try and fill those shoes, but it became abundantly clear throughout the 2013 season that the task was far too much for the six-year veteran. Douglas was able to put up very good production this past year, catching career-highs of 85 catches, 1,067 yards and 2 touchdowns, leading the team in the two former categories. However, a lot of Douglas’ production came at points in games where the outcome was already decided, resulting in “hollow” production. Dropped passes, inconsistency and turnovers seem to follow Douglas throughout the season. Roughly half (eight) of Matt Ryan’s 17 interceptions were initially targeted at Harry Douglas.

Douglas will likely return to his role as the third receiver in 2014 with the healthy returns of Jones and White. But in reality, Douglas is probably better suited to being the team’s fourth receiver. Jones has missed time prior to 2013 due to injuries, and while Douglas has been a capable short-term fill-in for him, the lack of long-term value was exposed this past year. Douglas simply doesn’t do any of the things that Jones provides to the offense. Very few receivers do, but the Falcons could at least attempt to find someone that is in the same area code as Jones.

What Jones brings to the table is his size and ability to get deep. That affects the way defenses prepare for the Falcons, forcing them to respect the deep ball even if the Falcons fail to utilize it. With Douglas lining up on the outside, that respect goes out the window. Douglas is more effective when working out of the slot because he sees far less press coverage there, and he can use his quickness to catch shallow and underneath passes. But when it comes to lining up outside, where he sees more press and getting vertical, those represent the two biggest weaknesses of Douglas’ game.

That’s why it makes sense for the Falcons to try and add a receiver that is an upgrade in both of those areas. In the event of another Jones injury, the Falcons can still field an effective vertical option in their passing game. White is still capable of getting deep from time to time but he is not the fearsome downfield threat he once was. White is more of a chain mover and possession receiver, and that role and niche will likely be expanded in 2014 with the departure of tight end Tony Gonzalez. Not to mention, White has been impressive when he’s gotten the opportunity to play in the slot where his toughness and route-running makes him a far more effective option than Douglas in that role.

The Falcons offense would be better if they had another weapon on the outside that could help stretch the defense. Because it would essentially allow the team to upgrade two spots: the outside position as well as the inside position if White makes a permanent move there.

The positive for the Falcons is that this year may be the perfect time to fill such a need with what is expected to be a very deep wide receiver class in May’s upcoming draft. It may push talent that is usually selected in the second and third rounds in the fourth round or later.

Meanwhile the Falcons should have improved depth at the position even before adding a rookie in the draft. Darius Johnson and Drew Davis both had some moments last year as injury fill-ins during the middle of the season. But for the most part, the moment was a bit too big for them. Johnson had some lapses from time to time, but looks like he could be a younger, cheaper, and possibly better version of Douglas if he continues developing. Davis is primarily a special teams player, but the playing time he received this year will be valuable for him in the future in the event of another injury. If the Falcons do wind up adding another receiver, it will likely put Kevin Cone on the roster bubble in 2014. While Cone has the physical dimensions to be that tall, vertical threat, he failed to develop in three years with the team. His lack of playing time on offense and the fact that Johnson quickly surpassed him on the depth chart is indicative that the team only sees him as a special teams player. Davis is a better special teams player coupled with being the superior offensive weapon, it will make it tough for Cone to make the team in 2014, especially if the team brings another young receiver via the draft.

The Falcons intend to extend White’s contract to keep him in Atlanta beyond 2014, the final year of his contract. But adding a young receiver that can be an heir apparent to the 32-year old receiver will be a smart move. Not only does it solidify the team’s depth at the position in the short-term, but gives them time to develop a long-term replacement for White.

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Aaron Freeman
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