The Falcons released Harry Douglas early in the offseason in order to gain some financial leeway. The move cleared up about 3.5 million dollars in cap, but the Falcons lost a valuable piece to their organization. Douglas was a terrific number three receiver and even showed promise when being forced to play a bigger role because of injuries to other receivers. The cut left Hester to assume the role as the third option for Matt Ryan, but since the Falcons have added some younger pieces to compete with Hester for the number 3 receiver spot. So who will assume the number 3 receiver role for the majority of the season?
On March 11, the Falcons signed former Redskins WR Leonard Hankerson. Hankerson spent 4 years in the Redskins organization after being drafted out of the University of Miami. His best year came in 2012, in which he caught 38 balls for 543 yards. It was the only season that Hankerson was healthy and played a full season. He recently spent all but one game on IR due to a knee injury, but when healthy, Hankerson has talent. He has decent size at 6 feet 2 inches and 211 pounds, and runs a speedy 4.43 40-yard dash making him a solid deep threat from the slot position. He also played under current Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan in Washington. This is by far the best offense that Hankerson will have played with in his career, and it will be interesting to see if he can take the next step as a receiver and solidify himself as the 3rd receiver on this team.
The Falcons also bolstered their receiving core through the draft. With the 107th pick in the 4th round of the draft, the Falcons drafted Justin Hardy out of Eastern Carolina. Standing at 5 feet 11 inches tall, Hardy has the prototypical size of a slot receiver in the NFL. The best part about Hardy is his hands. He catches almost everything possible and rarely drops a pass. Hardy set an FBS record for most career receptions at Eastern Carolina with 387. Since the start of camp, Hardy has been wowing Falcons players and coaches with his hands and Matt Ryan has recognized his progressions. Hardy is a rookie, so he needs to get in games and get his feet wet first, but he could be the Falcons slot receiver of the future.
Devin Hester had one of the best receiving years of his career for the Falcons last season. Although he was number 4 on the depth chart, Hester caught 38 balls for 504 yards. He is extremely dynamic when he touches the ball and can score on every opportunity. There are very few players as explosive as Hester, however, he is not a terrific receiver. He is also not getting any younger. I would love to see Hester utilized the same way he was last year. He should not be the 3rd receiver in the offense, but he should have some plays drawn up for him. I would like to see Hardy establish himself as the third receiver this season. Hankerson’s deal is not long term and with Hester aging, Hardy is likely the only one with a significant future with the team. He will need time to get his feet wet, but his route running and terrific hands should make him more than serviceable this season. My prediction: Hardy will be the 3rd receiver for the majority of this season.