A position that only a few years ago was considered one of the weakest groups in the league, has now transformed into an area of strength for the Falcons.
A big part of that is the emergence of Roddy White as a legitimate No. 1 receiver. White has an excellent combination of size, speed, and has improved his hands and concentration by leaps and bounds in the past year. Always considered to have a strong work ethic, the team hopes that White can continue his high level of production in 2008, as he is the most proven weapon on offense.
While there may be a competition for the other starting spot opposite White, it is most likely to land in the lap of Laurent Robinson. Robinson impressed as a rookie, catching 37 passes. Robinson has good size and speed and has flashed good hands at times. He needs to improve his concentration and work on his ability to make plays after the catch. If he can do those two things and basically become more consistent overall, he should be come a solid starter in this league.
Pushing him for playing time most likely will be Michael Jenkins. Jenkins technically was not a starter last year, but was thrown to the second most behind White last year, and finished with second on the team in receptions (53). Jenkins has had issues with his hands in the past, and that’s an area that continues to plague him. But Jenkins big frame makes him a valuable asset on third downs and in the red zone. Jenkins is unlikely to start, but even if he’s the third receiver on the depth chart, he’ll likely get a lot of playing time. He represents a capable veteran insurance policy in case Robinson doesn’t make the necessary leaps.
Likely filling the fourth role on the team is rookie Harry Douglas. Douglas was the prime target in Louisville the past two seasons. He lacks ideal size for a starter, but should fit in nicely in the slot. Douglas has a golden opportunity as a reserve to build a rapport with Matt Ryan. If and when Ryan is elevated to the starting position, increased opportunities for Douglas to impact will likely follow. Douglas also was a productive player on special teams at Louisville, which should keep him active on game day come the regular season.
This foursome probably won’t leave much room for veterans Joe Horn or Brian Finneran. Horn started 12 games last year, but was a disappointment. When the Falcons signed him last spring, they hoped his veteran presence would rub off on the young receivers and also give the team a steady set of hands. They also hoped that the decline in his production over the past two years in New Orleans was due to his rocky relationship with the coaching staff and injuries rather than age. But from his play last year, it seems that age has caught up with the former Pro Bowler. Horn requested a trade from the team in May due to declining playing time behind the four young guys. It’s possible the team could move him before the regular season, but the interest in Horn will likely be low. More than likely the team will cut Horn when they feel young guys like Robinson and Douglas are ready to fill the void.
Finneran has missed the past two years due to a knee injury, and hopes he can be healthy this year. If he is, then he stands a decent shot at making the roster due to his ability on special teams. But it’s unlikely with four younger, quicker, and improving receivers ahead of him, he’ll get too many reps on offense.
Adam Jennings flashed potential last summer as a slot receiver, and will need to do so again if he wants to stick. Jennings is the front-runner at the punt returner position, and how he performs this summer there will most likely impact whether he makes the roster. But it also wouldn’t hurt if he can produce as a receiver. He has good speed, but due to his lack of size, he’s going to need to show that he can get open and consistently catch the football.
Rounding out the depth chart are Chandler Williams and Eric Weems. Williams and Weems both have a chance to produce on special teams in the return game. Both are long shots to make the roster, but could push for a practice squad position. Particularly if either show ability as a gunner on punt coverage or as a returner.
Also on the roster is Japanese player Noriaki Kinoshita. Kinoshita is an international player and will be automatically added to the practice squad this season. He cannot be cut or elevated to the active roster as such, but still this marks a golden opportunity for him to impress the team with his quickness, speed, and work ethic. Kinoshita flashed ability last summer as a return specialist, and any gains he makes this summer will be counted for him in 2009 if/when he is brought back.
Horn vs. Finneran vs. Jennings – They will be battling it out for the likely fifth and last roster spot. Jennings may have the edge due to his special teams value.
Jenkins vs. Douglas – They will be battling it out for the third receiver position. If Douglas wins, he’ll likely be the slot receiver. If Jenkins does, Robinson is likely to move inside to the slot when the team goes three wide. Jenkins has the edge.
The Falcons will probably keep five receivers. They may keep six, but that will likely be dependent on one of their top four being injured heading into the regular season. Horn’s $2.5 million base salary is guaranteed, meaning that whether the team keeps him or dumps him, they are still on the hook for that matter. But it’s unlikely the team will keep him if they don’t plan on playing him.