This is the third installment of a comprehensive positional roster breakdown for the Falcons following April’s draft — moving on to one of the most loaded position groups in Atlanta, wide receivers. The biggest story surrounding this group has been the trade rumors circulating Julio Jones and depending on if he stays or goes, other receivers’ roles will be affected in different ways. The Falcons have 11 receivers on the 90-man roster — accounting for Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back — and I would expect Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith to carry six on the 53-man roster.
Julio is the first domino in this breakdown. If he’s in Atlanta for 2021, the Falcons’ offense will be incredibly difficult to defend. The amount of double coverage the All-Pro draws on a week-to-week basis opens up the running game, Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, and Hayden Hurst. However, the salary cap is a thorn in Fontenot’s side at the moment, and a trade would provide much-needed relief. Still, Smith’s offense with Julio Jones is something the world needs to see.
From here on, I will give two scenarios for each receiver: with and without Julio Jones. Ridley has already proven what he can be without his Alabama counterpart, finishing tied for fifth in the league in receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns in just 15 games — a second-team All-Pro. If he’s the team’s first option at receiver, Ridley will surely challenge for All-Pro honors again, cementing his place among the elite pass catchers in this league. If Jones stays, Ridley’s role will be more limited, obviously, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he still pushed for a 1,000-yard season.
Russell Gage would benefit greatly if a trade were to occur. He showed exactly the type of player he could be last year as the former sixth-round pick set career highs in every major receiving statistic — 109 targets, 72 receptions, 786 yards, and four touchdowns. The emergence of Gage makes one feel better about Julio leaving because the former LSU Tiger proved his worth as the team’s second option at receiver. If Julio is on the team, Gage’s role will shrink dramatically given Arthur Smith deploys 11 personnel only 38% of the time — per SharpFootballStats of 2020 Titans.
In a three-game stretch without Julio, Zaccheaus was targeted 19 times, recording 13 receptions for 140 yards. He filled in nicely as a depth piece and will likely be battling with Christian Blake for a roster spot. Primarily as Atlanta’s fourth option at receiver, he hauled in 20 passes for 274 yards and one touchdown last season before he was placed on the IR after a toe injury.
The sixth-round pick is a firecracker on and off the field. At the very least, Darby will offer positive reinforcement as a rah-rah guy. He recently lost his mother in February but said he’s always been this effervescent — now it’s only intensified. “She done left another battery in me now,” he told FOX 5 Sports. “So my energy battery plus (hers)? Oh man, call me Duracell!” If Julio were traded, he could potentially step into a small role as a deep threat as he averaged 19.7 yards per reception in college over his career. I think Darby has the best chance of making the roster out of Zaccheaus and Blake, but more than likely, it’ll be between Blake and Darby as Zaccheaus is a different type of receiver than the other two.
Depending on Darby’s development, Blake could be one of the first backups or on the fringe of the roster. He could help replace the snaps vacated by Julio but shouldn’t be expected to have a significant role with or without Julio. If he’s on the 53-man roster, Blake will have to contribute on special teams to earn his stripes. I’d expect Blake to be one of the last cuts of the offseason… narrowly beaten out by Darby and Zaccheaus.
Chris Rowland could potentially make the roster, but it won’t be easy. His role on the team lies on special teams as a punt returner, but the Falcons drafted Avery Williams, who looks to be the team’s punt returner. With Cordarrelle Patterson returning kicks, the chances for Rowland to edge out a roster spot are slim. Without Julio, the chances increase but not by much.
Much like Rowland, Dortch’s only path to making the 53-man roster is via special teams. He’s played in just two career NFL games — both with the Panthers in 2019 — returning five kicks for 119 yards (23.8 yards per kick return) and four punts for 28 yards (7.0 yards per punt return). I would expect Dortch to be a part of the second wave of roster cuts.
Green went undrafted last year and spent the entire season on Atlanta’s practice squad. At the University of Albany, he caught 106 passes for 1,815 yards and 21 touchdowns in just 23 games. Green is nothing more than a camp body, and with or without Julio, his chances are slim of making the 53-man roster.
Nunn is interesting, given his skill set as a receiver. At 5-11, 200 pounds, he’s slight for an NFL receiver, but he does not have the track star speed to make up for that. He’s surprisingly physical for his size and plays with an impressive football IQ — able to find the soft spot in zones regularly. With or without Jones on the team, Nunn’s role lies on special teams. He could be stashed away on the practice squad in either case.
Trammell is an interesting cat. His 40 time was all-time slow (4.62 seconds), but he benched 225-pounds more times than Walker Little and Dillon Radunz — offensive linemen. That is absurd for a 180-pound wideout. Trammell is a long-shot to make the roster, but apparently, his willingness and talent could lead to a special team’s role, though I would imagine him being cut before the final 53-man roster.