Why the Falcons Must Let Roddy White Go

Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsRoddy White

Little more than four years ago, I wrote an article discussing why the Atlanta Falcons should move on from running back Michael Turner, and today I have done the same for wide receiver Roddy White.

When arguing why the Falcons should move on from Turner, I focused on the steady decline in ability that he had shown in each of his first four seasons in Atlanta. By 2011, Turner had increasingly become a player that was prone to either break a long run of 10 or more yards or would run for minimal gains of one or two yards.

So the argument went that type of intermittent production could be overlooked and tolerated for an explosive home run threat like Chris Johnson, but for a back like Turner, such sporadic play was counterproductive. That’s because Turner was relied upon to carry a significant portion of the offense, given the sort of ball-control style that the Falcons employed at the time.

Extrapolating his four-year decline into a fifth year where Turner was set to turn 30 and count around $7.5 million against the Falcons 2012 salary cap, the team needed to cut bait. At the very least, they should’ve reduced his salary to mesh better with the expectation of his impending decline.

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Michael Turner

However in the case of Turner, the argument for keeping him in 2012 could have been laid out as thus:

Even acknowledging the reality that he was on the decline, there was still reason to believe that he could still be a productive running back in the NFL capable of reaching 1,000 yards in 2012. He was coming off a 2011 campaign that saw him rank third in the NFL with 1,340 rushing yards. Even with a 25 percent dropoff in production, that would’ve still put his production at 1,005 yards.

And a 1,000-yard rusher still has value in the NFL, especially when you were considering the state of the Falcons heading into the 2012 season. The team was just one year removed from making their “all-in” trade for Julio Jones and was in the mindset of reaching the Super Bowl. While the team may not have expected to be able to rely on Turner to carry as much of the offense as he had done in previous seasons, he still could potentially impact in spots, particularly in short yardage and near the goal-line in critical red-zone situations.

What actually ensued was a 40 percent drop in production for Turner in 2012, as he finished the year with 800 rushing yards and the Falcons ranked dead last in the NFL in short-yardage conversion on downs with one or two yards to go.

Tough break, I guess.

But this situation contrasts greatly with the Falcons current predicament heading into 2016 with White. White isn’t coming off a year similar to Turner’s 2011 season where he was one of the league’s top producers. Based off Pro Football Focus‘ yards per route-run metric, White was in fact the worst starter in the NFL, ranking 85th among wide receivers that played on at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.

In fact, White’s unproductive 2015 campaign historically is one of the least productive seasons for a starting wide receiver ever. Over the past 20 years, only 24 receivers have managed to start all 16 games in a season and fail to eclipse 45 receptions as White finished this past year with 43 grabs for 506 yards and a single touchdown.

Like Turner, there’s absolutely no reason to think that White’s production is going to rebound. He too has been on a steady decline in production over the past four seasons. That has been partially induced thanks to injuries in 2013 and 2014 that limited his effectiveness, but it’s ridiculous to think that White is going to somehow reverse time and become a better receiver at age 35 in 2016 than he was at age 34.

The other part of the equation is that the Falcons aren’t “all-in” going into 2016. There is no “Super Bowl or bust” mentality with this current regime, or at least there shouldn’t be. The Falcons certainly will strive to make the playoffs this upcoming season, but there is a significant gap between where they are today and being a favorite for a title.

Trying to “keep the band together” for one last push made sense in 2012, but makes little in 2016. The Falcons are in the throes of rebuilding their roster in the image of new head coach Dan Quinn. Frankly that image shouldn’t include a 34-year old receiver named White.

Especially now that position coach Terry Robiskie has headed to Nashville to be the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator. Robiskie was instrumental in helping White develop into the player that he was for the bulk of his career in Atlanta. A lot of Robiskie’s energy was likely wrapped up in trying to keep White on the straight and narrow, something he promised he would do to White’s mother in 2008.

White also owes a huge debt for his development to veteran receiver Joe Horn, who helped mentor White back in 2007. Horn helped show White that great receivers simply don’t just show up, but rather that they put in the necessary work on and off the field to achieve their status.

White struggled his first two years in the NFL because he was talented but immature. He didn’t watch film, he spent too much time in the club, ate poorly, essentially everything you’re not supposed to do if the goal is to be good. Horn and Robiskie were prominent figures in course-correcting White to the eventual path that led him to breaking all the Falcons receiving records.

One oft-heard argument for why White deserves to be kept is that he could potentially “pay it forward” and be that same guiding hand for another young receiver. But that first requires the team to add a receiver with the same combination of talent and lack of maturity that White had 10 years ago. That isn’t exactly ideal. Wouldn’t it be better to add a talented receiver that doesn’t have those issues? After all, the Falcons did exactly that when they picked up Julio Jones and Justin Hardy.

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Julio Jones

It would certainly be nice to have a veteran like White there in the event that some young rookie receiver is lackadaisical in his approach this year to show him the better way of doing things, but it’s not necessary. It’s not as if Jones himself cannot provide excellent mentorship. After all, he is undisputedly the best wide receiver in the NFL. Jones is one of the hardest working players in the league and changed his diet, providing exactly the same sort of role model that any immature wide receiver would need. White at best is the cherry on top, but not essential.

The other part of the equation is that keeping White hurts the development of Hardy. After riding the bench for the first seven games of 2015, Hardy played primarily as a slot receiver over the second half of the year. He spent 68 percent of his snaps playing inside over the last nine games of the year.

While a small sample size, Hardy’s production was significantly better on the inside than it was on the outside:

Justin Hardy Slot vs Outside (2015)

Statistics are provided by Pro Football Focus. YPRR = Yards Per Route-Run; YPT = Yards Per Target
CategoryRoutesTargetsCatchesYardsTDsYPRRYPT
Slot150261715401.035.92
Outside71844000.565.00

Meanwhile thanks to his declining production, White has increasingly become more of a slot-only receiver than an effective weapon on the outside. Here are White’s yards per route-run stats in the slot versus outside since 2007:

Typically in the NFL, a quality starting receiver is going to average about two yards per every route run. White hasn’t been that sort of receiver since the tail end of the 2013 season, when he averaged 2.23 yards per route-run over the final five games, which was the ninth best of any receiver in the league during that span.

Now let’s examine Roddy’s production in the slot versus the outside over the past three seasons versus the previous three:

Roddy White Slot vs Outside (2010-15)

Statistics are provided by Pro Football Focus. YPRR = Yards Per Route-Run; YPT = Yards Per Target
CategoryRoutesTargetsCatchesYardsTDsYPRRYPT
2010-12 (slot)283765355441.967.29
2010-12 (outside)15504042543482212.258.62
2013-15 (slot)348573644241.277.75
2013-15 (outside)1356226150169671.257.50

White’s overall effectiveness as an outside receiver versus a slot receiver is practically indistinguishable over the past three years, which was not the case from 2010 to 2012. And his production as an outside receiver is far below what should be considered “starting caliber.”

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Justin Hardy

The best way to use White moving forward is by making him primarily into a slot receiver, where his veteran savvy will be more effective against lesser nickel corners. He lacks the ability to stretch the field that is ideally suited to playing outside. He’s lacked that ability for a number of years, and it’s unlikely to magically return at age 35.

You’re simply not going to be able to maximize White’s ability moving forward as a slot receiver, while simultaneously being able to develop Hardy for the same role.

Another common defense of White is excusing his steep drop in production in 2015 by blaming Kyle Shanahan. It’s an easy target since Shanahan isn’t well liked by the fan base and White has “legendary” status among the same group. That premise is built upon contrasting White’s production in 2014 versus 2015 and thinking the catalyst is Shanahan. Again, it’s an easy leap of logic, but yet it’s a false one.

Because it doesn’t address the more likely possibility that White’s drop in production stems more from age rather than play-calling. Such a drop happens frequently in the NFL for older receivers like White. Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston all experienced this in 2015.

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Donald Driver

Donald Driver is another great example that saw it happen to him in 2010 when he hit the age of 35. The previous year, Driver had comparable production as fellow wide receiver Greg Jennings as the Packers’ “co-lead” receivers. Driver finished 2009 with 70 catches for 1,061 yards and six touchdowns while Jennings recorded 68 catches for 1,113 yards and four scores. The next season, Jennings saw his production increase while Driver’s dipped to 51 catches for 565 yards and four touchdowns, which was on par with the team’s third wide receiver James Jones (50 catches, 679 yards, five touchdowns) that year.

That dynamic is comparable to what we saw in Atlanta this past year with Jones being highly productive, but White’s production being eclipsed by third receiver Leonard Hankerson for a significant chunk of the year.

What happened the following year in 2011 was another down year for Driver (37 catches, 445 yards and six touchdowns) when he was also eclipsed by Jordy Nelson, who leapfrogged the others as the No. 4 to becoming the No. 1 option. Then in his final NFL season in 2012, a 37-year old Driver limped to a measly eight catches for 77 yards.

It’s worth noting that Driver was also the Packers’ primary slot receiver over his final years, which was their best method to try and get maximum usage out of him. Driver eventually retired after 2012 just shy of his 38th birthday.

Now the argument for keeping White likely shifts to a similar track as Driver. Forget the stats, forget the numbers, you keep White because he’s a Falcon for life just like Driver was in Green Bay.

I think I’ve made a compelling case so far as to why cutting White is the right “football” decision based off logic and reason. But it’s next to impossible for me to make a case that given all that he has done for this franchise and city over the years, cutting him makes sense from an “emotional” standpoint. But I’ll give it my best shot.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Roddy White (right)

We all want Roddy to retire a Falcon. That certainly was the case back in 2014 when the Falcons were working on a contract extension and I still believe it’s the case now. However that extension is the main point I want to bring up. Back in July 2014 after roughly half a year of working towards locking up White one final time, the Falcons gave him a little bit extra on the eventual four-year extension.

A few days earlier, I projected that White would sign a three-year extension that would pay him $12 million in guaranteed money over the first two years of the contract. What ensued was a four-year extension that included a two-year payment approaching $18 million if you include escalators. Ultimately White has made slightly more than $14 million over the past two seasons because he failed to hit the benchmarks to trigger those escalators.

Compare that to Golden Tate, who four months earlier had signed a five-year contract with the Detroit Lions that included $13.25 million payout in the first two years. Tate was 25 years old at the time of his signing.

Also compare that to the deal that DeSean Jackson signed with the Washington Redskins that same offseason when he was coming off the most productive season of his career at age 27. Jackson’s deal included a two-year initial payout of $16 million.

The point I’m making is that White was already been rewarded financially for his leal service to the Falcons franchise over the years when the team threw a bit extra on his last extension. He got paid in line with guys that were in the primes of their careers. That was the team essentially giving him a “thank you” for his years of production by giving him a deal that went over what the market might have dictated.

They’re not obligated to give White another $4.25 million in base salary and roster bonuses that he is due in 2016 on top of what they’ve already given him.

Cutting White is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s the right medicine for the Falcons if they want to move forward.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

6 Comments on "Why the Falcons Must Let Roddy White Go"

  1. Your assessment of White’s performance is in accurate as he wasn’t targeted for most of the season. You can’t catch passes if they aren’t thrown to you.

  2. You aren’t thrown passes when you can’t get open. Matt Ryan’s many, many, many decisions to NOT throw Roddy the ball this past year is all the assessment you need of his performance.

    • When you are the #3/#4/#5 receiver in this offense you ain’t getting looked at often. Expecting any receiver to get a lot of looks after #1, #2, RB checkdown by Matt is kinda madness. We ain’t got that kind of O-line. I like your stuff Aaron but this is one of those cases where one thinks something, repeats it over and over (peer approval) and finally goes stat hunting to make the opinion look scientific. Don’t know if Roddy should be kept or not but do know that he made clutch catches when targeted (as good as anyone else not making 2x+ as much), was a hell of a blocker, a vocal leader and mostly healthy. I don’t mind that kind of guy at his current cap hit..

  3. The notion that the backup WRs don’t get targeted much in this offense is a myth. The backups get targeted as much as they deserve. People have the mistaken belief that the offensive coordinator is dictating the offense from the sideline. The QB is dictating the offense from the pocket, and is making 99.99% of the decisions on who is getting the football. The OC’s contribution to the play is built upon the initial play-call (which usually dictates the reads), but ultimately Matt Ryan has the determination to adjust the reads based on what he sees pre and post-snap to his own liking.

    If the reserve receivers aren’t getting targeted it’s usually because they aren’t good, which is the case with all 32 NFL teams, not specific to Shanahan’s offense. When this offense historically has had 1 good WR, then he has gotten the bulk of hte targets (which again is the case with all 32 NFL teams). When the offense has had 3 or 4 good receivers, then the ball is fairly evenly distributed (see 2012 Redskins).

    Roddy made “clutch” catches? OK, suuuuure he did. Here’s how many 3rd/4th down conversions each receiver had in 2015:

    1. Julio Jones – 27
    2. Jacob Tamme – 14
    3. Leonard Hankerson – 12
    4. Roddy White – 12
    5. Justin Hardy – 8
    6. Nick Williams – 4

    Lest I remind you that Hardy and Hankerson both only played about half the season. You talk about me repeating something over and over again, hoping to make it true, well that applies to the “supporters” of Roddy. Minor accomplishments (like having a couple of clutch catches in 1 or 2 games) are used as evidence as his continued value. Go back and watch the Week 2 game against the Giants or the Week 4 game against the Texans, where Hankerson had real impact, and I challenge you to find just TWO games where Roddy had the same impact. But even if you could, it still amounts to TWO games. TWO games does not merit a starting position. And we already know that Roddy will never truly accept a backup role. He said as much last September. He’s too prideful (and rightfully so).

    Hankerson was just as good if not better than Roddy was last year, and made $1 million and was a player that the Falcons essentially picked off the street. Roddy is set to make $6 million and is NOT going to be any better now that he’s a year older (and slower) than he was before.

    And even if I bought into the premise that Roddy struggled because Shanahan hates him. What makes you think that Shanahan is going to like him anymore in 2016 than he did in 2015? He’s dead weight. Move on.

  4. There’s no myth to backup WRs getting fewer targets. It is practiced as a QBs progressions and time allowed. I don’t disagree that the QB dictates the offense and the OC is only the start point. I never assigned a specific blame for Roddy’s low numbers other than to say he didn’t get a lot of targets but when he did he was as good as his teammates.

    “If the reserve receivers aren’t getting targeted it’s usually because they aren’t good” is a pretty broad statement for such a complex interaction. Logically I cannot assign a grade of “good” or “not good” based on the sum result of the plays where they were not given the opportunity to catch the ball…what WRs are graded on. With super powers you can know what the play was, whether everyone ran their route and why Matt decided as he did. For those of us lacking that extraordinary ability, such conclusions must be based on targets and here Roddy caught the ball as good as anyone when targeted and the ball was catchable.

    Stats are cool. They are facts. What is not fact is how we interpret them. It does not surprise me that the 5th ranked receiver (4th in your stats) on the team had the 4th most “clutch” catches (I’m accepting your definition of clutch as stat here). Statistically I could say he is better than Julio as far as “clutch” catches per target. I would not say that because it is ignorant of why Julio was limited but I’m sure there is a stat that would explain that. Roddy made plays when given the opportunity as good as anyone.

    You mention Hankerson as sort of measuring stick for Roddy but once again, we end up back at opportunity. LH made those plays you refer to, not Roddy but I still struggle to make the jump to Roddy’s abilities. It’s as if you suggest that Roddy would not have made those plays given the same opportunities, routes and circumstances. You simply can’t know that but I do know that Roddy wasn’t dropping passes all the time….especially “clutch” catches.

    Admittedly, $6 Million is a lot for a #3/4 receiver but Roddy has earned that money through a body of work, not just 2015. You seemed to see a “Homers” vs “Realists” debate but that’s not where I am. Roddy has put in work for the organization and I recognize that. I also want to win and when players become liabilities, they should go. Throughout this response I have made reference to “as good as”. There was a point to that. Roddy did nothing to show me he can’t do the job or that he is a liability any more than anyone else. I would rather honor that $6 million contract and utilize Roddy as opposed to eating $4M in dead cap to kick him off the team this year. I am less absolute in that if there is a situation where we need the $2M we save from dropping Roddy, I’m open but currently I don’t think we need to move on from Roddy.

  5. You speak of opportunity, and you basically suggest that the only opportunities that Roddy got was the times he was targeted. But in reality, his opportunities were all the times he was on the field.

    Saying Roddy took advantage of the opportunities as well as anybody is ignoring the 400 or so times where he ran a route and Ryan threw to somebody else. You don’t need superpowers, you just need to watch a little bit of film. And it’s telling when you watch film from this past year, how often Matt Ryan forced the ball to Julio in these do-or-die situations, even in situations where he had the opportunity to complete easier throws to Roddy.

    And one of the things I’ve said throughout this past year is that Ryan gave us a “referendum” on Roddy’s skills. He was one of the least targeted WRs in the NFL, but yet this is overlooked and dismissed for…reasons.

    What’s unique about Roddy is that because of his past glory/success, he’s given the benefit of the doubt more so than anyone else I can ever recall. Everybody acknowledged after 2012 that Michael Turner was done. But it’s odd to me how much denial there is about Roddy being in that same state. He had one of the worst seasons as a starting WR in like the past 15 years, but yet people are still adamant that he can still contribute.

    It’s this attitude of “let’s make him a backup!” when he’s already said that he has no desire to be a backup. Just cut him loose and move on.

    The Falcons don’t owe Roddy anything more than they did John Abraham, Turner, William Moore, Tony Gonzalez, etc.

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