Julio Jones is obviously set in stone as Atlanta’s #1 receiver, and the monster free agent contract makes Mohamed Sanu the clear #2. But there are some interesting questions up and down the line, all the way down to the potential practice squad candidates.
Let’s start with Julio… the pressing question involving him is whether offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will continue to focus the game plan on getting the ball to Julio and no one else or if he’ll start spreading the love with the play calls. I haven’t gone back to double check, but I know of at least one game where Julio was targeted more than all of the other WRs and TEs combined. That’s never a healthy game plan.
With Sanu, the two obvious questions are whether he’ll have any chance of living up to the contract and how long it will take for Matt Ryan and Sanu to get their timing down so that Sanu can become another “go to” guy in clutch situations the way that Roddy White was (even last season, in spite of Shanahan seemingly determined to bury him).
One very interesting twist on that big contract… for both 2016 and 2017, the team fit Sanu’s cap hits almost exactly within the cap space freed up after releasing Roddy – even factoring in the remaining dead money hit from Roddy’s signing bonus. There may even be a net savings, as Roddy had escalator clauses that might have bumped his base salary for one or both seasons. I don’t know what the triggers were, but I’ve read that the potential increase was several million over the course of the remaining two seasons.
It was a shame to see the way the team misused Roddy last season and then basically threw him away, but the front office admittedly did an impressive job of fitting his replacement within the cap so that the team will feel no pain in spite of the eyebrow-raising headlines on the contract.
Sanu had an early start on getting his timing down with his new quarterback. Matt Ryan invited many of the Falcons players (both offense and defense, including all of the eligible receivers) to a private workout session in Florida – and paid everyone’s expenses to come join him. Ryan did something similar during the 2011 lockout, getting the players together for a players-only minicamp near the team’s training facilities. That alone won’t be enough to make them an established tandem by the start of the regular season, but every rep helps.
With Devin Hester, the big question is whether he’ll be fully recovered from his foot surgery in time for training camp. Last season ended up being a lost cause after he suffered a foot injury during a preseason game. It was diagnosed as “turf toe”, and he was put on IR with designation to return. But as soon as he returned to practice, it was obvious that things still weren’t right. He played only one snap on offense.
After the season, another examination determined that the initial diagnosis was dead wrong. He didn’t have “turf toe”. He had broken the sesamoid bones and would require surgery – with roughly a six month recovery period.
In the end, the team wasted its one allowed “designated to return” IR slot for 2015 plus the roster spot that he occupied after his return. A proper diagnosis would have allowed him to have the surgery in late August or early September, giving him enough rehabilitation time that he might have been able to participate in OTAs and minicamp this offseason.
Instead, he now faces a risk of not making the roster at all. If he’s not medically cleared, at some point the team will pull the pin and negotiate an injury settlement for his release. This is the final season of his contract, so they would not face any extra cap hit from accelerated amortization of his signing bonus.
He has been a potential weapon as a receiver for Atlanta (over 500 receiving yards in 2014), but considering that he’s gone after this season anyway, the organization would not hesitate to move on from him if his health is still an issue later this summer. It would be a shame to see the career of the NFL’s top all time return man brought to an end largely due to a misdiagnosis by the medical staff, but that is now a very real possibility.
Justin Hardy and Nick Williams enter their second seasons with the team, and both showed a promising future in 2015 in spite of limited playing time – and game plans that often ignored them even when they were on the field. Noteworthy stat: Williams had more catches last season than Drew Davis (the prospect he replaced) had in his 2.5 season Falcons career.
The questions for both of them are whether they can continue their strong development and whether either of them will take over the primary slot role and see more playing time or whether they’ll again be relegated to backup duty.
New recruit Aldrick Robinson makes that question even more tricky. Like Williams, Robinson is a former Redskins prospect who showed promise when Shanahan was OC there but fell out of favor with that team’s new coaching staff. His big question is whether he can jump start his career in Atlanta. He’s off to a good start. He has been one of the standouts in the preseason workouts so far, and even Julio has said to keep an eye on him in preseason.
Eric Weems has always been a special teams ace and even made a Pro Bowl appearance as a return man. But the Falcons have never been able to make him into a factor as a wide receiver. Now he’s over 30 and carries a fairly significant price tag for a player used only on special teams. The question with him is whether the team would burn a roster spot to keep him around for one more year. It doesn’t seem likely, but he has been a handy insurance policy in the PR/KR roles in the past.
Seventh round draft pick Devin Fuller has been held out of workouts to this point with a hamstring issue. He seems to be the heir apparent for the PR/KR role. The biggest question for him is whether he makes the roster in a crowded WR field now or if the team tries to stash him on the practice squad this season with an eye towards 2017.
If Fuller starts the season on the practice squad, he will likely not be the only one there. The team kept at least two receivers on the ten man unit for most of last season. An interesting twist is that one of the later recruits, C.J. Goodwin, ended up being used as a scout team cornerback – and turned out to be really good at it. He’s now listed as a full time defender rather than a receiver.
That helps ease the competition for the remaining WR prospects hoping to land a practice squad berth. The first question for all of them is whether they can step up in preseason and win that spot. The second is that if they do make it, can they keep developing well enough to stick around. Atlanta cycled through quite a few receiving prospects last season.
Former Brigham Young receiver Jordan Leslie may be the leader of that prospect group. He’s an interesting size/speed mix at 6-2, 209 with a 40 time below 4.5 seconds and good numbers in the other basic drills.
He passed through Minnesota and Tampa last year before landing on Atlanta’s practice squad late in the season, and he did well enough here for the team to resign him for 2016. He and the new UDFA prospects are all longshots for this year’s roster, but Leslie has the physical attributes to be an interesting developmental project for 2017 and beyond – if he can turn it on in training camp and the exhibition games to beat out the other candidates.