The Falcons are in a dire predicament in light of the news that Julio Jones is likely out for the season. Their offense is now without a No. 1 receiver, at least until Roddy White and his ankle and hamstring are fully healed. In the meantime the Falcons will have to be reliant on Tony Gonzalez to carry the offense from the tight end position. Not too dissimilar from the days under Michael Vick when Alge Crumpler was the de facto top option in the Falcons passing offense.
Can the team win that way? Perhaps, but it will be extremely difficult. In those days, the Falcons were able to get away with that style of play because it was buoyed by having one of the league’s premier rushing attack. Currently, the Falcons rank 25th in rushing yards per game and 17th in yards per carry. Much closer to average than back in 2004-06 where they led the league in both categories in each of those seasons.
Crumpler was also a much more effective vertical threat than Gonzalez currently is. In 69 games played with the Falcons thus far, Gonzalez has 23 receptions of 20 or more yards. In his final 62 games in a Falcon uniform, Crumpler had 50. That ability to provide big plays makes a dramatic difference in whether or not a receiver can carry an offense.
Even with the healthy returns of Roddy White and Steven Jackson, the best-case scenario for the Falcons offense over the remainder of the 2013 season will be reminiscent of the 2010 Falcons offense. It’s certainly possible, but given the state of the Falcons offensive line, that is more wishful thinking than anything. That 2010 rushing attack was dominant against some opposing fronts (4 games of 150+ rushing yards that season), but effective against most (12 games of 85+ yards). The Falcons have eclipsed 85 yards only twice this year: in the season opener against the New Orleans Saints, thanks largely to a 50-yard run by ackson, and against the Miami Dolphins. A healthier Jackson isn’t going to suddenly morph Garrett Reynolds and Jeremy Trueblood into Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo in their primes.
If the Falcons have any chance of turning their season around and making a late push towards a wild card slot, they need to rely on the arm of Matt Ryan. But that arm will be limited if the Falcons do not have a vertical threat in the offense that can affect how opponents play the Falcons. Julio Jones’ mere presence of the field makes defenses play the Falcons differently. They have to respect the deep ball on all plays because of Jones. Jones forced defenses to bracket him with safety help over the top, because he is capable of running past every corner in the NFL.
In recent weeks, NFL teams have devised a new way of playing the Falcons which is by doubling Gonzalez as well. Coupled with the bracketing of Jones, defenses are forcing a beat up White, Harry Douglas, and the rest of the Falcons unproven receivers to beat them. And it clearly has worked against the Falcons. Without Jones to help keep defenses honest, it will only get worse.
Douglas and the rest of the receivers not named Sharod are simply not capable of stepping up. If they were, we would have seen it at some point in the past two or three games. Sure, they can make the occasional play like Douglas did on the 40-yard catch against the Patriots, or Toilolo’s touchdown against the Jets. But can you build your offense around plays that happen once or twice a game?
The Falcons desperately need another threat that can at least scare defenses with the vertical pass to take pressure of Gonzalez and White when he returns. They need a player that can be a threat on the play-action if/when the Falcons can get their ground game going under Jackson in the coming weeks.
This is where Josh Gordon comes in.
Gordon is primarily a vertical threat for the Cleveland Browns. With his size (6’3″ 225), long strides, and speed (sub-4.4) he is a very good option to help take the top off the defense. The Browns already use Gordon in a similar method as the Falcons use with Jones. They like him to go primarily downfield, but will also mix him up with some shallow crossing patterns, reverses, as well as some quick screens to make use of his speed after the catch and with the ball in his hands.
Gordon is not going to completely fill Jones’ shoes as he’s simply not on par with him. But there are flashes of ability that Gordon displays that are comparable with Jones. He does have the capability of being a threat that defenses have to respect and can make them pay down the field. He is still a young receiver and has areas he needs to improve in. His effort can wane at times, particularly as a blocker and finishing some routes. But I believe coming to Atlanta will help him in that regard being surrounded by professionals such as Jones, Gonzalez, and White will demand that he improves there. And he needs to polish up his route-running, but the same can be said of all young receivers. And who better to learn from than the three aforementioned players?
Gordon doesn’t simply help the Falcons better compete in 2013, he can also be a key building block for 2013 and beyond.
Gonzalez has clearly indicated that 2013 will be his final year in Atlanta. While the Falcons drafted Levine Toilolo to be his heir apparent and he is starting to come on as a complementary threat, he’s no Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez is on pace to catch 105 passes this season on 147 targets. The expectation that Toilolo or any tight end will be able to fill that void is unrealistic. There are only two tight ends (Jimmy Graham and Jordan Cameron) that have been targeted more than Gonzalez, and frankly only 11 receivers overall that have seen more passes.
Interestingly enough, Gordon is on pace for 78 catches on the same number of targets this year. He certainly stands a chance to at least partially fill that void. The Falcons 2014 offense that would feature Jones, White, and Gordon could be a prolific one, and potentially one that is better than the current one in a key aspect: explosive plays.
The Falcons could potentially line up Jones and Gordon on the outside, and move White to the slot where he has proven to be far more effective than Douglas over the years. With Jones and Gordon to force safeties to respect the deep ball, it will create opportunities underneath for White to work the slot where he will typically be facing an opposing defense’s weakest corner. If defenses bracket Jones or roll their coverages to his side of the field, it will create one-on-one opportunities for Gordon, which he is more than capable of exploiting. It’s a “pick your poison” scenario not too dissimilar from the Falcons current attack with Gonzalez when at full strength, except one key difference: Gordon is much more capable of generating explosive plays. In just three games, Gordon has more 20-plus yard plays (5) than Gonzalez had in the entire 2012 season (3).
It’s also clear that Gordon is a significant upgrade over Douglas as the Falcons third option at wide receiver. Unlike Douglas, Gordon can beat man coverage. His size means that Ryan will be more willing to trust him on contested passes into traffic, an area where Douglas typically fails. And again, Gordon can be an effective vertical receiver, a trait which Douglas lacks.
Gordon is still young. He’ll turn 23 next April. By the time the 2014 season begins, Douglas will be on the verge of turning 30. Like Douglas, Gordon is also signed through the 2015 season. Meaning that if the Falcons were to acquire him, they would be little financial obligation towards him until then. Gordon carries a base salary of roughly $560,000 this year, which won’t be detrimental to the Falcons current cap situation. Over the course of 2014-15, Gordon will only hold a combined cap hit of roughly $2.5 million. This season alone, Douglas’ cap hit in Atlanta is about $2.65 million. That will increase to $3.65 and $4.4 million in 2014 and 2015.
You’re getting a much better player at a discount price. The idea that the Falcons could not afford Gordon or have too much money wrapped up potentially in the wide receiver position is simply not true.
The Falcons are going to have to pay Julio Jones a king’s ransom at some point in the next 18 months. It was likely that after this season, the Falcons would explore contract extension talks with him. In light of his foot injury, it might be smarter for the Falcons to wait until after the 2014 season to pay him in order to see how well he’s recovered. Then in March 2015, both he and White will have their contracts up. If Gordon proves in 2014 with a season and a half of play that he is an effective player, then the Falcons can let White walk after 2014 or try to bring him back at a reduced hometown discount for the last few seasons of his career. If not, they will still have another full year to evaluate Gordon before they will have to up his salary. By then, both White and Douglas would potentially be off their books, and thus the Falcons could better be able to afford two market-value receivers if it comes to that. The Falcons are already devoting roughly $21.5 million in cap space to their top four receivers currently, it’s doubtful that Jones and Gordon’s combined salaries in 2015 and beyond will ever exceed that total.
The main causes for concern in regards to Gordon is his character. He’s been dinged for character red flags before, although I do believe those issues are somewhat overblown. Yes, he is coming off a two-game suspension for drugs, an issue he had in college. But his recent suspension really is unrelated to the drug problems he had during his days at Baylor. Gordon claimed that his suspension was due to using cough syrup that contained codeine to treat strep throat he had last winter. Could he be lying to cover up the fact that he knowingly ingested “purple drank?” Possibly, but the fact that Gordon was only suspended two games instead of the normal four games suggests that the league understood it was an accidental violation, not a sign of continued substance abuse.
Yes, there is risk with Gordon. He’s at the point where if he tests positive again, he’ll be suspended for an entire season. But that alone should not be a deterrent. There are several players that are one strike away from season-long bans. Jared Allen is one, and it led to his exit from Kansas City back in 2008. But he’s gone to be an even better player and has kept his nose clean in Minnesota. Santonio Holmes was moved out of Pittsburgh because he was one-strike away too. The only issues that have plagued him in New York the past four years has been injuries and bad quarterback play. Richard Sherman and Von Miller are also one strike away from a year-long ban, but would that stop any team from trading an arm and leg for either today? Look at the New England Patriots, who took on problem child like Aqib Talib, another player that is one screw-up away from being sat for an entire season. And based off his play thus far this year, it seems to be paying off the Patriots.
There is no reward without some risk. I believe that Gordon’s substance-abuse problems are behind him. I believe that playing in Atlanta with Matt Ryan, and alongside Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White, and in the future Julio Jones will be a positive influence on him. Could Gordon still mess up and get bounced for a year? Absolutely. But there is just as much inherent risk in the potential draft pick the Falcons could use to trade for Gordon.
Which brings us to the next point: compensation. What would the Falcons have to give up for Gordon? I believe a third round pick would be worthwhile value for Gordon. I would be reluctant to give up a second rounder. Mainly because I believe the potential to find a Gordon-esque receiver is much higher with a second round pick than it is with a third by simply looking at the past four drafts and the wideouts taken in those two rounds.
Of the 15 wide receivers drafted in the second round since 2010, nine of them fit similar descriptions as Gordon: bigger receivers with vertical ability that possess enough upside to be a No. 1 or good No. 2 options. Names on that list include players like Justin Hunter, Alshon Jeffery, Stephen Hill, Rueben Randle, Torrey Smith, and Arrelious Benn. Those types of receivers seem to make up the majority of second round picks so it would seem likely that in next year’s draft the Falcons could find a Josh Gordon-esque receiver, thus making Gordon a little less valuable.
But in the third round, only about seven of the 21 receivers taken over the past four Aprils fit that description. Players like Terrance Williams, Keenan Allen, Eric Decker, Brandon LaFell, and Damian Williams stand out. But the majority of receivers that are taken in the third round are quicker slot types (e.g. Markus Wheaton, T.Y. Hilton, Jordan Shipley, Jerrel Jernigan) or “possession” receivers (e.g. Vincent Brown, Austin Pettis, Taylor Price, Mohamed Sanu, etc.). It appears less likely that the Falcons can find a receiver of Gordon’s caliber in the third round, and thus the team should be more willing to part ways with that pick to get him.
If the Falcons were looking for a guy that can help move the chains or potentially replace Douglas as their primary slot receiver, then they could find him in the third round or later. But the Falcons need someone that can stretch the field and with White being a more than capable slot receiver for the next year or so, then a third round pick doesn’t have quite as much value.
Current reports indicate the Browns are seeking a second rounder for Gordon, but that’s why you have negotiations. I would be reluctant to give up that value if I were in Thomas Dimitroff’s shoes. However, I believe the Falcons should be willing to offer a third round pick and possibly another late round pick to sweeten the pot to get Gordon.
I don’t think making a trade for Gordon is the end-all be-all for the Falcons this season. Regardless of whether it’s Gordon or another player, I believe the Falcons are in a position where they need to make a move to address the wide receiver position. Not only for this year, but for the future as well.
Gordon is a young receiver with a bright future, he just needs some refinement. Atlanta is going to need another receiver in the near future due to the impending retirement of Gonzalez and looming contract status of White, and for the right price it’s unlikely they are going to find a better option than Gordon. If that price is a third round pick it will become a smart investment for the future of the Falcons offense.