The release of wide receiver Harry Douglas by the Atlanta Falcons earlier this offseason might prompt a significant shift in their offense in 2015. It opened a void in the slot, where Douglas had made himself a nice home over the past seven years in Atlanta. But the Falcons already have a player on their roster that can fill that void: Roddy White.
White has spent the bulk of the past seven years playing outside, manning the “Z” or flanker wide receiver spot, which usually had him posted on the outside to the right of quarterback Matt Ryan. Back in 2008 and 2009, White got plenty of reps in the slot in large part due to the fact that Douglas had yet to emerge. Douglas was a rookie in 2008 and missed the entire 2009 season with a torn ACL. But in 2010 with Douglas’ healthy return, White was relegated back to being predominantly an outside receiver. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, about 13 percent of all the routes White ran in 2010 and 2011 were from the slot. Comparatively, 67 percent of Douglas’s routes came from the slot.
However, when the Falcons hired offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in 2012, White began to see increased reps in the slot. In 2012, roughly 20 percent of White’s routes came working in the slot. Pro Football Focus tallies that White produced 188 yards and a touchdown on 18 catches when working in the slot. Another one of their metrics is “yards per route run” (YPRR) which is pretty self explanatory. From the slot, White’s YPRR was 1.46, the best on the Falcons. However, White was a far more effective weapon outside the numbers in 2012, producing a YPRR of 2.24 on non-slot routes.
Douglas comparatively had a slot YPRR of 0.98. That number dipped even further when he was forced to play outside on about 24 percent of his snaps, producing a YPRR of 0.82. Just using Pro Football Focus’ YPRR metric, White proved to be 50 percent more productive in the slot than Douglas and roughly 270 percent more so when lined up outside. That certainly was a testament to White’s prowess as one of the league’s premier wide receivers.
The following tables show the production of each White and Douglas from 2012 through 2014:
Roddy White In Slot vs. Outside (2012-14)Roddy White's production from 2012-14 when lined up in slot versus outside. All stats from Pro Football Focus.com
Harry Douglas In Slot vs. Outside (2012-14)Harry Douglas' production from 2012-14 when lined up in slot versus outside. All stats from Pro Football Focus.com
It’s worth noting that White’s production as an outside receiver has declined significantly the past two years. So much so that his production as a slot receiver in 2014 eclipsed that of his outside production as far as YPRR is concerned.
Douglas on the other hand saw dramatic increases to his production as an outside receiver in 2013 and 2014, not only outpacing his production in the slot, but White’s own production outside the numbers.
At first glance, it is very surprising to see how much more effective Douglas was as an outside receiver than White was. But upon further review, it should not be that stunning. Anybody that read my game reviews over the first two months of the 2014 season is probably aware of how critical I was of White during that portion of the year. In fact, White played so poorly over that span that he went on to be named the most disappointing player on the team.
White really struggled to separate from coverage throughout 2014, especially in the first half of the season. That was a prominent point I raised in a number of reviews from last year, especially against the Vikings and Ravens. However, I did note in the review of the Week 8 game against the Lions, how effective White was when he was matched up against a linebacker while working out of the slot. Here’s a GIF of that play:
White is in the slot near the top of the image, matched up against DeAndre Levy as the Falcons utilize four wide receivers. While White’s burst and separation skills may have been lacking against corners in 2014, that wasn’t much of a problem against NFL linebackers, even one as capable as Levy.
White has always thrived on his precision route-running and a physical playing style that can get that last bit of separation. Linebackers are no match for him. Safeties have also historically struggled against him, and smaller slot corners would also prove to be overmatched by his physicality. The slot is downright perfect for him as he’ll have increased opportunities to exploit such matchups.
It’s simply a no-brainer that the Falcons feature White more in the slot as his career winds down. He’s just not a difference-maker anymore when lined up outside. Few corners have to respect his deep speed any longer.
Given that new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wants opposing teams to be forced to defend the deep ball, it only makes sense that the Falcons utilize a more capable vertical presence outside the numbers than White is. If or when defenses roll their safety help to Julio’s side of the field, said receiver can make them pay more consistently when isolated one-on-one, something White hasn’t done since 2012.
Free-agent signee Leonard Hankerson is a step in the right direction. While Hankerson is by no means a blazer, he can be an effective deep receiver at times due to his size and long strides. He’s not going to force defenses to adjust their coverages, but if/when he gets an opportunity, he can make a play from time to time.
The Falcons would also be better served by giving Devin Hester more opportunities to stretch defenses on the outside in 2015. 75 percent of Hester’s routes in 2014 came in the slot. Hester might be getting up in age, but he can still fly. However, that is still problematic given that the Falcons don’t want to be in a position where they are reliant on Hester to be a significant part of their offense. The Bears tried that for six years to no avail. Hester is best used as a situational player, similar to Hankerson. Ideally, the Falcons can use both to pick their spots as opposed to asking either one to be regular contributors week in and week out.
That means that the Falcons really need to target a vertical threat in this year’s draft. Ideally, they can find their very own version of Martavis Bryant. Bryant was used sporadically by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rookie in 2014, but was very effective. Bryant only saw 48 passes thrown his way, but nearly half of them (42 percent) were passes that were thrown 20 yards or longer.
That sort of usage does have an effect on how defenses play you. Because so much attention by opposing defenses was paid to Antonio Brown, it opened opportunities for Bryant and other Steeler receivers to exploit. The same can happen with the Falcons in 2015 thanks to the presence of Jones.
It’s also worth nothing that the Falcons can’t really trust Jones to stay healthy for a full 16-game slate. He’s managed to do so only once during his four years in the pros, and even one game without Jones is one too many, as the Falcons came to realize last year in Week 15’s loss to the Steelers. The Falcons need another player on their roster that can challenge opposing defenses in a similar fashion as Jones does if the latter is sidelined once again. Now, it’d be foolhardy to expect that any receiver the Falcons draft this year or any year to be on Jones’ level, but even a guy that can give the team 30 percent of what Jones provides is arguably 30 percent more than what they’ve had in the past.
This is one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of Auburn’s Sammie Coates. Not only would he continue the Falcons’ legacy of selecting receivers that played college ball in the state of Alabama (Jones went to Alabama, White to UAB), he brings some of the same dynamic skills that Jones does.
Bryant is an even better comparison for Coates. Both are tall, explosive athletes that have questionable hands. Bryant didn’t shake those concerns about his hands in the pros, as his 13.3 drop rate (per Pro Football Focus) was among the highest in the NFL in 2014.
But unlike Bryant, who had a few minor character red flags coming out of Clemson last year, Coates has a very clean record. He’s also been praised for his improved work ethic and competitiveness during Senior Bowl week.
The biggest knock on Jones coming out of Alabama was his hands as well. Players like Brandon Marshall and Terrell Owens have shown a tendency to drop a lot of passes over their careers. Helping Coates’ case is that he won’t have the “personality issues” that both Marshall and Owens suffered from. And in the case of the latter two, both were exceptional players that had very inconsistent hands throughout their NFL careers. Point being, the inconsistency of hands can be slightly overrated. When you can make big plays, dropping a lot of passes can be forgiven somewhat. When a receiver doesn’t make plays, then the drops become a lot more glaring. Douglas’ reputation can certainly testify to this fact.
Atlanta is a perfect situation for a receiver like Coates to develop. He’ll almost certainly never be tasked with having to be the No. 1 receiver thanks to the presence of Jones on the roster. Because of that same presence, he’ll almost always draw single coverage. And if he’s in a situation where he’s matched against an inferior cornerback, his physical prowess alone can make that a mismatch.
If White moves to the slot, it should essentially be a renaissance for the 11th-year receiver who has a few more years left on his contract. The presences of burners like Jones and Coates on the outside would force defenses to have to respect the deep ball almost every down. That pushes the safeties back, creating more space underneath for White, the Falcons tight end as well as the running game. Simply by putting another receiver on the field that instills fear in defenses due to his vertical potential, essentially enhances three other players.
Should that prove true and White see an increase in production from the past two years, that would also take even more pressure off Coates. Not to mention the presences of Hankerson and Hester at least through 2015 also mean that Coates will be put in a situation where he can develop as his own pace. He doesn’t have to be the most polished receiver right away, since he’ll most be asked to run go routes and deep posts as a rookie, which isn’t much different from what he did at Auburn.
Now I’ve certainly made my case for why Coates is a good fit for the Falcons. But drafting him might prove difficult. He’s projected to be a second-round pick, and I’m not sure given the wealth of other needs the Falcons have that they can afford to use the 42nd overall selection on a player that might just wind up being the fourth or fifth wide receiver as a rookie. Really, the best hope for the Falcons is that other teams are scared off by Coates’ inconsistency and he falls to the top of the third round, where the Falcons hold the 73rd overall selection. That possibility seems unlikely, so it would appear their best-case scenario would be that Coates falls to the latter portion of the second round and the Falcons part ways with one or two of their third-day picks to move up to get him.
I can certainly understand if anybody reading this is only lukewarm to such a possibility. But regardless whether it’s Coates or someone else, the Falcons should certainly be eyeing a big wide receiver that can line up outside and stretch defenses in the draft. They need that receiver that can come in and be the sort of outside receiver that instills the fear into opposing defenses that White did once upon a time.
The Falcons could look at other options should the opportunity not arise to draft someone like Coates. Miami’s Phillip Dorsett is a speed freak that could potentially function like Mike Wallace for an NFL offense. Georgia’s Chris Conley is another athletic marvel that has speed to burn on the outside. Nebraska’s Kenny Bell lacks the elite second-gear, but has enough speed to challenge downfield. William & Mary’s Tre McBride is a small-school receiver that someone might draft in the hopes that he can be another John Brown.
All of them are more likely than Coates to be on the board when the Falcons pick in the third round or later and might be very good consolation prizes. But whether the Falcons get the receiver that can take the top off opposing defenses in the draft, the point still remains that White needs to be utilized as a slot receiver far more than he has been the past several years.
A good deal of White’s struggles in 2014 can be blamed on knee, ankle and hamstring injuries nagging him throughout the year. Another possibility is that White’s focus may not have been there due to the tragic loss of his brother during the offseason.
But even given these possibilities, there’s no denying that White has lost a step. He’s already 33 years old and Father Time is undefeated. The best way the Falcons can delay the ticking clock is by trying their best to maximize whatever White has left in the tank and as I’ve outlined there is evidence that indicates that will only be solved if White makes a permanent move inside to the slot. At a minimum, White should probably see half of the routes he runs in 2015 come while lined up in the slot.
Since one of the biggest criticisms of the Falcons last coaching staff was their inability to effectively utilize their players, this new staff can’t get off on the wrong foot by continuing to miscast White as an outside receiver.