Since 2011, when the Atlanta Falcons moved up in the draft to add wide receiver Julio Jones, this team has been flush with receiving talent. The combination of Jones and veteran Roddy White makes up one of the best one-two, pass-catching punches in the NFL. Tight end Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the field gave quarterback Matt Ryan a plethora of targets.
Gonzalez is gone however, retired after 17 seasons of some of the best tight end play ever to grace the league. The Falcons are going to miss his presence more than you think. Ryan has grown accustomed to having three sure-handed targets to befuddle opposing defenses.
When Jones was lost for the season after having foot surgery in October, and with White hobbled and less-than-himself with nagging injuries throughout the season, we got a glimpse of what life would be like without the three-headed monster of Gonzalez, White and Jones.
This is what 2014 might feel like too.
With Gonzalez gone, the Falcons have second-year tight end Levine Toilolo, and could very well select a tight end somewhere in the draft. But neither is going to be able to produce what Gonzalez did.
The next Gonzalez isn’t on this roster, or walking through the door. That’s an unfair expectation for anyone. That said, could a wide receiver step in and somewhat fill the void?
White and Jones have screamed for years that No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas would be a solid No. 2 option on many other NFL teams, and could be a league leader in receptions if not buried on the depth chart in Atlanta. Douglas showed that last season by pulling in 85 receptions for 1,067 yards (his previous career high was 39 catches for 498 yards in 2011) with extended playing time.
But White, Jones and Douglas won’t be nearly as fearsome a trio as White, Jones and Gonzalez. Douglas can surely put up better numbers than his 2011 season, but he won’t equal what he did in 2013, or provide similar figures to Gonzalez.
It’s also necessary to consider issues with White and Jones.
White is 32 years old and on the final year of a six-year, $42.7 million deal. He is still a more-than-capable receiver, but his days of being elite might be over, as are his days of being Atlanta’s No. 1 option.
Jones is elite, and absolutely ready to take over as top dog among the Falcons’ receivers. But Jones has been injury prone, in both the NFL and college.
Not only did Jones miss all but five games last season with a broken foot, he missed three games during his rookie season dealing with hamstring issues. At the University of Alabama he only missed one start during his career, but dealt with various maladies like a knee bruise (the reason he missed that one game), a broken bone in his hand, shoulder sprains, groin pulls, and a fractured wrist.
He also had a screw inserted into his foot after his combine physical in 2011 revealed the need for surgery.
Jones is the epitome of tough, and has played through more pain than one can imagine. But his injury track record is starting to raise a few red flags.
With an impressively deep receiver class in this year’s draft, the Falcons might look to add a game-changing pass-catcher. For what role is still a question.
This receiver could come in and compete with Douglas for the No. 3 role. He could also be a 2015 replacement for White should either side choose not to negotiate a new contract. This new receiver could also provide injury insurance for both White and Jones.
When should the Falcons choose to grab a receiver, and who might be available when they make that move? There's depth and talent throughout the draft, but here’s a case for a Day 2 solution.
Round 2, Pick 5 (37th overall)
The idea of Atlanta using its second-round pick on a receiver is almost ludicrous. The Falcons have a gigantic need for both an offensive tackle and a pass-rusher early in this draft. Odds are the team’s first two picks will address those needs.
But if general manager Thomas Dimitroff tosses a curve ball, Atlanta could get a superb receiver here.
Who might be available at 37: Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss, Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt, Cody Latimer, Indiana, Martavis Bryant, Clemson, Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State.
Every receiver listed here could come into camp and compete with Douglas. There are a few with potential first-round upside.
Taking a receiver at 37 hurts in the short term, because one of those huge needs won’t be met. But this could be a winning long-term move for the Falcons. The trio of White, Jones and Douglas don’t have many more years together in them.
Round 3, Pick 4 (68th overall)
The Falcons’ third-round pick is the first spot where it isn’t not entirely crazy to think a receiver could land with the team. Let’s assume Atlanta finds an offensive tackle and a pass-rusher in the first two rounds. There’s still a need for an upgrade at safety, but the receiver talent might be too much to pass on here.
Who might be available at 68: Davante Adams, Fresno State, Bruce Ellington, South Carolina, Paul Richardson, Colorado, Jarvis Landry, LSU.
Among this group is a guy (Adams) who posted two 100-plus catch, 1,000-yard seasons, a speedy, multi-sport athlete (Ellington) who has been compared to Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb, a deep-threat, touchdown-producing option (Richardson) with game-altering speed, and a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown receiver (Landry) with almost immeasurable upside.
Let’s face it, the Falcons taking a wide receiver on Day 2 isn’t likely going to happen. There are bigger current needs, and enough talent on the roster right now to make this notion insignificant.
But no one thought prior to the 2013 season that a 12-loss campaign in Atlanta was anywhere close to a possibility. Moving in a direction like those listed above could provide some insurance against a run on injuries like 2013. It also could keep the Falcons’ offense dynamic past the White-Jones era.