By Jared Clifton
I haven’t decided if I blame Mohamed Sanu or blame the longtime Falcons Equipment Manager, Brian Boigner.
On the one hand, Mohamed Sanu, he of the perfect career passer rating, delivered one of my favorite double dips in 2014, with his improbable TD pass to one Mr. Andy Dalton. That awkwardly magnificent 13.52 point play got me a win that weekend, and for that, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the former Bengal and Falcon.
Brian Boigner is the protector of men. He provides the latest in technology to safeguard the best athletes on the planet and is the custodian for some of the best uniforms that the NFL has to offer. His contributions to installing modular pads and brain injury preventative helmets into the Falcons equipment room have made the game safer and helped secure the futures of the players that provide such joy to fantasy players and fans alike.
By all accounts, both are fine men, and both should be looked at fondly by Arthur Blank, the coaches, the players, and the Falcons faithful.
I blame them for Russell Gage not wearing the number 12 on the front, back, and shoulders of his jersey. I mean, 12 Gage! What a nickname! It’s on the level of “Night Train” and “Prime Time” and even “Sweetness”!
I contend the only way the Atlanta Falcons organization can make it up to us is by getting him more integrated into the offense or designing a cartoonish 83-weight scatter gun that would make Elmer J. Fudd lose his patented lisp.
Gage has the opportunity to do the former, with the Atlanta Falcons having the most vacated targets to fill at a whopping 258 (39.3%) and a not-insignificant 1285 air yards vacated. Many, including myself, expect Calvin Ridley to see a substantial uptick in targets this year. The additions of Hayden Hurst from the Ravens and Todd Gurley from the Rams will eat up a good portion of those homeless targets. That still leaves a healthy amount likely to go to the primary slot receiver, Russell “83” Gage.
Once Sanu was traded to New England, Gage averaged over seven targets per game. I concede that seven targets a game is unlikely with a healthy Ridley, target monster Julio on the field and new additions Hurst, Gurley, and even Laquon Treadwell. It’s a likelihood that Gage could see around 10% of the vacated target share. Take those new 25.8 targets and add them to his target share of 74 (including 14 red-zone targets) in 2019, and that provides a usable 100 target WR. Using his 66.8% catch rate and 9.1 yards per reception benchmarks from 2019, that becomes a 67 catch/610 yard player, with growth potential in the TD category based on his RZ target share. Gage finished last year a spot behind Phillip Dorsett II, as the WR71, but using an increased target model, a projectable line near 65/650/3, would have put him near the WR40 spot with names like Dede Westbrook and Dioatae Johnson. It’s crude math, but a justifiable projection for the type of player he can be in this offense for 2020 and a far cry from the 91st WR based on ECR.
Digging deeper into the logic behind this reasoning, the subtraction of Freeman opens up 70 targets out of the backfield, which is a decrease of 7 from the Falcons three year average of primary RB passing work, including Freeman and Tevin Coleman sharing those targets in 2017 and 2018. Gurley is coming off his worst target share since his rookie season but has averaged 72 goals over the same three-year span, so that’s effectively a wash on those vacated targets. The more likely outcome is that Gurley’s usage in both the passing and running games mirrors his last year with the Rams, either out of preservation or injury. In that case, the Falcons could rely on Ito Smith to pick up the slack and catch passes like he did at Southern Miss or effectively capture the former Coleman role. Either way, that leads to an on paper 10-12 target increase, at best, based on the three-year averages.
That leaves us with approximately 178 targets to divvy out to new route runners, Hayden Hurst and Laquon Treadwell. Assuming Hurst takes over the Hooper role, he would see a three year average of 83 targets. The Falcons heavily target a single TE, which is likely to be the case again in 2020. There are a lot of similarities to Hooper and Hurst’s games. Nearly pound for pound and inch for inch the same size. Eerily similar numbers in yards per target, catch rate, and QBR when targeted; all among the best in the league. I see no reason why Hurst won’t be targeted similarly to Hooper and likely return the same efficiencies shown in Hooper’s injury-shortened breakout season. The range of outcomes would be +/- 97 targets then.
So, we’re down to around 81 targets. That brings us to Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell was a talent that never quite regained his burst after a devastating injury at Ole Miss. As a first-round selection by the Vikings, he has been plagued by injuries and drops his entire career. He was brought in as a depth piece to replace longtime WR4 Justin Hardy and likely nothing more. Hardy averaged just 25.6 targets from 2017-2019. The Falcons run 4+ WRs on less than 5% of their plays. With the rise of Hooper and now the addition of Hurst, that ratio should remain the same. A team that runs nearly 68% pass plays puts a lot of targets on a smaller number of receiving options. Over the past three seasons, 89.4% of pass attempts to the WR’s have gone to the top 3 WR’s. With that top-heavy approach, it likely confirms that Treadwell won’t be a serious target hog. Let’s take another 26 targets off the board.
Sticking with three-year averages for this last point, the Falcons have attempted an average of 609 passes, nine less than 2019, and nearly the same as 2018. There is the possibility of attrition in pass attempts this season, but under both OC stints in Atlanta by Dirk Koetter, the Falcons have ranked in the top 10 of pass attempts every season. Let’s give the Falcons a 5% reduction in pass attempts, and that takes another 30 targets away, leaving us with an available 26 targets that should go to Gage and get him close to 100. That lines up with the load Sanu left behind and what the Falcons WR3 has historically seen.
I’m buying Russell Gage as a sleeper this year and see him being worth a shot in the later rounds of your PPR dynasty or redraft as an upside play. Conservatively, he’s a reasonable floor guy, and the Falcons historically have provided plenty of boom potential from the slot.
While we may not be getting the next great football nickname, in the shadow of such greats as “Too Tall,” “Megatron,” or “Iron Head,” we may get a new household name.
Jared Clifton – Dynasty/Redraft
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