In 2015, the Falcons’ wide receivers were unsteady, as no one other than Julio Jones stepped up as a real threat. Matt Ryan constantly found himself having to force the ball to Jones or dump it off the likes of Jacob Tamme and Devonta Freeman. This year, Atlanta looks to have a sure depth chart at WR heading into the season. The acquisition of Mohamed Sanu, strides from Justin Hardy, and a speedy deep threat in Aldrick Robinson should provide Matt Ryan with a group of players that he can mesh with before the season.
Now just because the Falcons got themselves some other targets, does not mean that Julio will not be the primary focus of the offense. Arguably the best receiver in the league and coming of a near 2000-yard season, Julio will again be an absolute wrecking ball as the team’s number 1 wideout. He has stayed relatively healthy as of recent, and has improved every season he has been in the league. He and Matt Ryan are one of the most potent QB-WR duos in the league and that should not change at all this year.
Honestly, there is not much else to say about Julio. He is one of the most consistent threats in the game and every football fan, cornerback, defensive coordinator and head coach knows how dangerous he is night in and night out. Should we expect him to break the receiving yards record this year? It is absolutely a real possibility, but he said himself that he is focused only on winning football games. Plus, the last thing the team and fanbase wants is to overwork him and have him all banged up come December. It would be a joy to see it happen, but I’m sure most people would prefer to see the Falcons thrive off of a balanced offense with threats all over the field.
Apart from Julio last year, Matt Ryan had little chemistry with a receiving core that primarily featured Roddy White, Leonard Hankerson, Nick Williams, and Justin Hardy. None of these players proved to be reliable number 2 receiver, so the front office looked to free agency to acquire a consistent threat opposite from Jones. Mohamed Sanu was signed to a multi-year deal, and though he never has been a true number 2 in his career, the coaching staff obviously saw something special in him.
Mohamed Sanu prides himself on being one of the most versatile receivers in the game. He has no glaring weaknesses, and has solid size and speed to go along with his catching ability. Drops have been an issue with him in the past, but he put that behind him last season, recording just one drop on 49 targets. He also is known for his throwing and running ability, and the Bengals featured him in many trick plays. We all know how creative Shanahan likes to be, so we can expect to see some of the same in Atlanta.
When it comes down to it, the major factor in Sanu’s effectiveness will be his ability to beat 1 on 1 coverage. With Julio being such dominating threat, Sanu will rarely see double teams, and he must take advantage of this to cement himself as the WR2 for the future. Consistently beating his man will make things much easier on Matt Ryan and will prevent him from having to make the many forced throws to Julio we saw last year. I expect him to have somewhere between 800 and 1,100 receiving yards, and around 5 TDs. If he can put up numbers like those, the Falcons will have a dangerous duo of receivers to pair with a dynamic backfield.
The second-year man out of ECU, Justin Hardy, is expected to be the primary slot receiver for Atlanta this season after a rookie year that started off slow, but ended on a high note. Hardy is shorter than most receivers, but his outstanding hands and route running are what makes his ceiling so high. He had some clutch third down catches last year, and coaches have praised him for his consistency and confidence in training camp this month. The only issue with him, like Sanu, is the fact that they are both pretty unproven players, but the future looks bright for both.
Earlier this month, the Falcons seemed to have a bunch of receivers all in the same boat fighting for the final few roster spots. However, this changed after new Falcon Aldrick Robinson bursted onto the scene, flashing his speed and deep route capabilities. Many thought this was just training camp hype, but he went off in the first preseason game, going for over 115 yards on three catches against the Redskins. He is now a virtual lock to be the number 4 WR, and provides Ryan with a nice deep threat apart from Julio.
The final few receivers are all players who are looking to claim their roster spot primarily through special teams. Nick Williams had a couple of nice receiving games last year, but Hardy and Robinson seemed to have pushed him down the depth chart a bit, so he will need to show some effectiveness elsewhere. Receivers Eric Weems, Devin Fuller, and J.D. McKissic are all competing more as returners and special teams players rather than pass catchers. Weems is a reliable, but aging veteran, while Fuller and McKissic are both speedy rookies who are on the roster bubble. McKissic impressed with a 101 yard kickoff return TD last week, but he and Fuller will have to show more if they want a chance at a roster spot.
Out of all of these receivers hand-picked by the coaching staff, Matt Ryan should find some reliable targets to spread the wealth passing the ball. Julio is primed to remain one of the best offensive players in the NFL, and Sanu should be a physical, versatile presence opposite to him. Add in the sure-handedness of Hardy and the home-run threat of Robinson, and the Falcons are looking at a WR core that should take a big step forward.