The Atlanta Falcons receivers group is arguably one of the worst in the 2021 NFL season. They have the least yardage of any wide receiver corps in the league. At tight end, it’s almost the reverse. They have generational talent Kyle Pitts as the starter and quite a few reserves that help out with blocking and can catch short routes as above average No. 2 tight end options. When it comes to groups that need an almost complete makeover this off-season, it’s this one.
Kyle Pitts is obviously going to be the primary option for the Atlanta Falcons group of receivers moving forward. He’s the only tight end 21 years or younger in NFL history to gain over 1000 yards. He’s a physical freak and as his routes and catching get more refined, he’s only going to be more impactful. Frank Darby is a very good long-term reserve option for the Falcons as a fourth option in the passing game and is under contract for very little money.
Calvin Ridley is the most unique situation in the NFL as he’s currently under a mental health leave from the league. Should the Falcons want to move on because they aren’t sure he’s in it for their team, they should trade him for the most value they can. It would free up cap space in the amount of $11 million. If he’s ready to go for the Falcons, he’d instantly be an option for No. 1 receiver. Ridley could lead the passing game and mentor Pitts to be an even better player than he is.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents:
WR Chad Hansen
WR Austin Trammell
TE Parker Hesse
TE John Raine
When looking at the exclusive rights free agents the Atlanta Falcons have in the receivers group, this looks like a few guys who can provide a little depth for the camp roster. The only person in this group who could be a regular contributor moving forward is Parker Hesse. Hesse is a good fit for the long-term blocking role in Arthur Smith’s offense. He’s shown abilities as a short-yardage outlet for the Falcons as a rookie and could continue a similar role for the team moving forward.
Restricted Free Agents:
WR Olamide Zaccheaus
WR Christian Blake
TE Jaeden Graham
Restricted free agents are an interesting situation for the Falcons. While Christian Blake is an obvious non-tender option due to lack of production and lack of talent overall, Jaeden Graham and Olamide Zaccheaus had impacts during their first three years with the team. Zaccheaus and Graham should both be brought back, but ideally, they re-signed for under the original tender offer.
Unrestricted Free Agents:
WR Tajae Sharpe
WR Russell Gage
TE Hayden Hurst
TE Lee Smith
The biggest names from this group in terms of talent and production are Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst. Gage has proven to be a talented third or fourth receiving option in the offense and a good possession receiver needed for those tough third downs. Hurst has shown to be a solid blocker and a good fit for the Arthur Smith offense, but might be looking for a more expanded role in another offense. If the Falcons can get either guy back on a reasonable contract, they should do so.
Tajae Sharpe has been a decent fit for the Falcons as a tertiary receiver and possession guy, but he’s only shown that his value is as a veteran minimum player. If he comes back for that, bring him into camp. Otherwise, let him walk. The same can be said for Lee Smith. He’s been a good blocker, but not much else for the Falcons during the 2021 season.
The Falcons need more playmakers moving forward regardless of who’s on the roster for 2022. As much as the team and fans love Kyle Pitts, he can’t do it on his own. Bringing in a competent and talented option to play as the No. 2 to him or even a No. 3 role to him and Calvin Ridley should be a priority for the future. Free agent options to consider that would fill that role include Allen Robinson, Allen Lazard, Juju Smith-Schuster, A.J. Green and Emmanuel Sanders.
At tight end, the Falcons could consider bringing in options that might be able to mentor Kyle Pitts while also working in a similar tight end/wide receiver setting. Jimmy Graham, Zach Ertz and Jared Cook are names that spring to mind that may not break the bank while still providing what is needed. Outside of that, going bargain options for a blocking tight end makes the most sense.
Potential Future Need
In this situation, the potential future need is the same as the current need. The Falcons don’t have a hard contract situation to deal with at this position, but the Calvin Ridley situation brings forth a lot of questions. If Ridley does come back to the Falcons and signs long-term, this would help the Falcons have their No. 1 option settled for the future and remove what this need is.
What the Plan Should Be Moving Forward
The plan moving forward should first be to figure out what Calvin Ridley wants to do. If he wants to be in Atlanta, keep him and set him up long term to be the No. 1 guy. If he doesn’t, trade him for assets that can be used moving forward. If he doesn’t, the Falcons biggest need in this group is a true, playmaking No. 1 wide receiver. And whether they address it in the draft or free agency is to be determined.
Once that situation is determined, figure out the rest of the Atlanta Falcons receivers group and tight end group to complement the strengths and weaknesses of the No. 1 and Kyle Pitts. Having multiple options out there, the Falcons could go in a plethora of directions. What they end up doing isn’t fully up to them due to the Ridley situation, though.