I’m here to say it: the Falcons don’t need Julio Jones. They have Russell Gage.
Okay, so none of that is true. I don’t even know what the Falcons are doing (Rebuilding? Competing? Vibing?), but whatever their plan is, having Jones is better than having extra second- and fourth-round picks. Calvin Ridley, delightfully talented, certainly helps assuage the loss of Jones—but again, this is not reason enough to move on from Jones.
Yet the Falcons did, and accordingly thrust Ridley into a WR1 role, and behind him, Russell Gage into the WR2 spot. I dove into Ridley’s film last season and came away convinced that his elite route-running destined him for a continued breakout in Atlanta—and indeed, in 2020, Ridley had career-best numbers in yards/route run, average depth of target, and total targets. He was excellent, and even against CB1s in Jones’ absence, I expect him to remain excellent.
But behind Ridley, the Falcons’ wide receiver depth chart doesn’t have many household names. Perhaps the most recognizable is Cordarelle Patterson, the RB/WR hybrid and longtime returning star. 2021 sixth-rounder Frank Darby joins incumbents Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Christian Blake.
Maybe Gage’s name isn’t household just yet, but that should change as he gets added attention following Jones’ departure. Count me among those who did not realize that, after the Falcons’ bye week, Gage hauled in 37 of 57 targets for 407 yards in a seven-game stretch. With both Jones and Zaccheaus out with injury, there wasn’t much competition, but Gage delivered on his playing time with quality performances and has clearly stepped into the WR2 role behind Ridley for the new-look Falcons.
A sixth-round pick out of LSU in the same 2018 class that delivered Ridley, Gage stuck on the roster for his special-teams ability. He was a quality athlete willing to do the dirty work—always the calling card of the developmental players discussed at the end of the draft. Gage stuck on the active roster by playing special teams, and in his years under Jones and Ridley in Atlanta, has picked up some nice habits as a route-runner. An explosive athlete with some looseness, Gage escaped tight coverage in the slot on both quick-breaking and vertical routes last season, making him a popular third-down target for Matt Ryan down the stretch.
This is legit separation ability and it’ll translate to a prominent role in the Falcons’ offense. More so than any incumbent player save for Ridley, Gage has the chemistry and proven track record with Ryan to retain this quick-separation role and keep Ryan from prolonged dropbacks that invite hits and pressures. Anything he can bring after the catch is just a bonus.
Now, the Arthur Smith offense was not oriented on the quick game in Tennessee. Smith ground the running game for modest gains, only turning to the passing game when he had a clearly favorable match-up or needed an explosive shot. He played big bodies in Corey Davis and A.J. Brown, working them upfield off of play-action, targeting them on intermediate in-breakers or isolation routes outside of the numbers. That’s why Jones was such an exciting fit with Smith, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see that this year.
Gage has some experience winning there. Especially when Jones was sidelined, Gage was occasionally asked to work vertical stems in 12/21-personnel and take advantage of vacated MOF windows off of play-action. Gage’s success here doesn’t come with physicality or size or toughness, but rather with sharp, quick routes that allow Ryan to throw with anticipation.
This is tenable for the Smith offense, but it isn’t ideal, and if Smith is dedicated to his prototype of big-bodied intermediate catchers, then Gage likely won’t fill this role often and will be removed from it beyond this year. Gage makes more sense as a Kalif Raymond-esque player, who is used in 13-personnel as a deep shot specialist given his 4.42s 40-yard dash speed. But Gage is still learning the finer points of downfield receiving, as he is an inexperienced ball-tracker who doesn’t like going up for contested catches just yet. You can see that in the last rep of the first clip: great route, but once he gets a vertical stack on the defender, he isn’t sure yet how to maintain positioning and track the football.
In general, Gage is still a budding receiver. He suffers from easy drops, convoluted route timing, and doesn’t like contact. It’s impressive to see how far along he’s come as a separator, and on shallow targets, I think he’s a starting-caliber player. But this offense isn’t known for its shallow targets, so Gage will have to be absurdly valuable there to force Smith to keep that role around in the offense next year.
Gage does look like a fun player for the 2021 season. With no other options on the depth chart and a quarterback that trusts him, Gage is suited for production by default. With opportunity comes reps, development, and tenure. I’m not sure Gage can do enough to discourage the Falcons from aggressively attacking wide receiver in the offseasons to come, but I do think he has the juice of the third target-getter in an offense featuring Ridley and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. And if the Falcons are behind in a lot of games (yep) and forced to pass, that could spell a weirdly fun season for the yet non-existent Russell Gage hype train.