This is the third of a ten-part series reviewing the Falcons season and taking a look at the future outlook position-by-position. If you missed any other installments, be sure to check them out.
For much of Matt Ryan‘s career, the Falcons have had elite receiving cores. During his rookie year, Ryan threw touchdowns to Michael Jenkins and Roddy White, who made the Pro Bowl that year. The following season Atlants signed Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. A couple of seasons later, the Falcons drafted Julio Jones; Ryan threw to White, Gonzalez, and Jones for several seasons. Then the team drafted Calvin Ridley, which gave Ryan a receiving core of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper.
Ryan has been spoiled in this facet for his entire career; however, that luxury turned into a significant weight dragging Ryan’s production down in 2022. Coming into this season, the Falcons were set to have a core comprised of Kyle Pitts, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst, and Russell Gage. Then, Jones was traded, Ridley stepped away from the game altogether to focus on his mental wellbeing, and Gage and Hurst missed extensive time. In a matter of six months, Ryan had arguably the best receiving core of his career to the worst — the wide receiver position being by far the worst.
Gage finished the season as the team’s leading wide receiver, totaling 66 receptions for 770 yards and four touchdowns. Olamide Zaccheaus was the team’s next most productive wideout — 31 receptions, 406 yards, and three touchdowns. Though he missed 12 games, Ridley still put up 31 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Tajae Sharpe and the rest of the depth chart were mainly underwhelming.
The team’s most consistent threats in the passing game came in the form of a tight end and running back. Pitts was the team’s leader of receptions and yards, while Patterson totaled more catches and yards than every receiver not named Russell Gage. The 2021 season was very forgettable for this group. And the 2022 outlook isn’t much better.
Atlanta is set to experience an incredible amount of roster turnover, particularly in the receiving core. In terms of the percentage of snaps played, the Falcons’ top three contributors are all set to hit free agency this spring. Olamide Zaccheaus (57% of offensive snaps), Russell Gage (56%), and Tajae Sharpe (47%) account for nearly 80% of all snaps by receivers.
Combine that with the uncertainty surrounding Ridley’s future in Atlanta, and Matt Ryan could be throwing to a much different receiving core in 2022. The Falcons might have just one receiver under contract for 2022 at this point — Frank Darby.
Gage has made it clear the Falcons have the first crack at signing him if they choose to, which at this point, might be wise to do. He’s a valuable third-down target for Ryan, and he’s already familiar with the offense. Atlanta can not afford to trot out the same supporting cast in 2022 as they did in 2021 for Ryan.
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