NFL & Atlanta Falcons

Hankerson, Ward off to strong start for Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH -- It’s no secret whatsoever that Julio Jones remains the Atlanta Falcons’ go-to wide receiver. He finished with close to 1,600 yards receiving last season on 104 catches and conceivably could do more in an offense that should be improved in 2015.

But there are questions about Atlanta’s depth chart after Jones, who now seems to be mentioned in the same breath as elite NFL receivers like Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant with regularity. Roddy White and rookie Justin Hardy will have spots on the final roster, but their roles are still up in the air. Devin Hester and Eric Weems could both make the team as special-teams aces, and they would push the receiver tally to five for the Falcons.

Could Leonard Hankerson be a sixth receiver?

Hankerson played in just one game last season with Washington and was only thrown to once. He signed a one-year deal with Atlanta in March with his biggest asset to the Falcons being he knew offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system and could help with the transition during the offseason.

But something happened during OTA’s and mini-camp, and that phenomenon still rages on. Hankerson’s pass-catching skills are opening eyes.

“I think it’s the length; he’s got such a big catching radius,” head coach Dan Quinn said after Sunday’s session. “You’ve probably seen some of the sideline plays; he’s got such a knack for keeping it in bounds and going to stretch for the ball, so that’s probably one of the biggest things that stands out for me with Hankerson.”

The 6-foot-2 Hankerson continued his sideline prowess Monday with the Falcons in full pads for the second straight day. And he has been one of the offense’s shining stars through four sessions, possibly Atlanta’s best receiver in these early stages.

The Falcons broke camp last season with six receivers, making Hankerson’s hope for a roster spot brighter if he truly sits as the sixth man in the coaches’ minds. But Shanahan -- with Cleveland last season and Washington the year prior -- started the season with five receivers on his roster. If he continues that trend in 2015, Hankerson will have to supplant either Hester or Weems. That seems unlikely given their value to Keith Armstrong’s special team’s units.

Atlanta’s running back situation has a few more question marks at the top, but the group seems somewhat easy to predict.

Second-year rusher Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman will battle for the role of lead running back, and that competition might continue into the season. Add in Antone Smith, whose big-play ability impressed the coaching staff in 2014, and a fullback to the mix and the Falcons could easily break camp with four running backs.

If Terron Ward continues to play like he did Monday, he might force the coaches to make a difficult decision, or maybe just flat out add him as the fifth rusher.

Ward, an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State, made some noise on two occasions Monday. He got to the outside on a carry in 11-on-11 drills, put a crossover-like move on a linebacker and broke the play all the way to the end zone. In pass protection, Ward took out fellow rookie and first-round Vic Beasley. Beasley came around the edge after the quarterback and Ward blocked him to the ground with one hit. Beasley was forced to leave the field and wait on the sideline for a few plays before coming back.