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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.