Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: The wide receivers/tight ends

Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley talks about the lessons imparted by former teammate Julio Jones and his ascension to No. 1 receiver.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before they report for training camp Tuesday.

With the trade of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley is the Falcons’ top weapon at wide receiver.

Also, new Falcons coach Arthur Smith will place an emphasis on the tight end position and try to get prized rookie Kyle Pitts ready to play when the team reports for training camp Tuesday.

Smith, who will call the plays, prefers to use two and sometimes three tight ends in his personnel groupings. The Falcons used three wide receiver formations for 60% of their snaps last season.

In football-speak, the Falcons favored 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers), while Smith used 12 (one back and two tight ends) and 13 (one back, three tight ends)

“Atlanta will miss Jones, but two things might soften the blow: the addition of Kyle Pitts, possibly the most highly regarded rookie tight end ever, and Smith’s personnel tendencies,” Thomas Bassinger wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac 2021.

Last season, only the Browns (52%) used formations featuring multiple tight ends (and/or six offensive linemen) more than the Titans.

Ridley had surgery on his left ankle over the offseason, but thought he’d be ready for training camp as recently as June 15.

“No pressure, no pressure,” Ridley said. “No pressure at all.”

Ridley appreciated Jones helping him earlier in his career.

“I played with Julio, Mohamed Sanu since Day 1,” Ridley said. “Those guys … I feel like I’ve been moving toward this. I can do it by myself. ... Obviously, I’m not by myself because we have players that are really good. But I felt like I’ve been ready. I just needed an opportunity to get in those positions.”

Ridley had 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns last season. In games that Jones didn’t play, Ridley averaged over 100 yards receiving.

“We want to keep the standard high like Julio, Roddy White and a bunch of other guys have done that have come through here,” Ridley said. “That’s my goal, to show the guys how it’s done and how it should look. Play my heart out and help the team get wins.”

Russell Gage, who was strong as the slot receiver, will have a chance to be the No. 2 wide receiver. He had 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns out of the slot last season.

The trading of Jones on June 6 was emotional for the players.

“It was kind of sad,” Gage said during an interview on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” on Tuesday. “I learned so much from him from when I first arrived in Atlanta. I think I’ve learned more from him in a few years than I learned in my whole career.”

Replacing Jones, who has the team record for catches (848) and yards receiving (12,896), will be a group effort.

“With Julio gone, there’s gonna be some of that load that needs to be put on me,” Gage said. “It’s not just me, it’s the whole receiving staff. … All of us are (going to) have to help fill (in for) Julio because that’s such a big shoe to fill.”

In addition to Ridley and Gage, the Falcons have Tajae Sharpe, Frank Darby, Christian Blake, Antonio Nunn, Olamide Zaccheaus, Chris Rowland, Austin Trammel and Jeff Badet.

The Falcons used the fourth overall pick to select Pitts, who played at Florida. He was drafted the earliest of any tight end ever. Tight end Riley Odoms was selected fifth overall in 1972 by Denver.

Odoms went on to play 12 seasons, was named to four Pro Bowls and was All-Pro twice.

Pitts had a strong offseason, but things will change once the team puts on the pads.

“He’s long and has got real speed,” Ridley said. “We have to get him locked in all the way in so that he can play to the best of his abilities.”

Falcons tight end coach Justin Peelle, a former All-Academic player at Oregon, will mentor Pitts. Peelle carved out a niche in the NFL and played for 10 seasons, including three with the Falcons (2008-10).

Over his career, Peelle played alongside greats Antonio Gates in San Diego (2002-05) and Tony Gonzalez with the Falcons (2009-10).

After his career was over, Peelle went into coaching and has been with the Eagles. He was their assistant tight ends coach from 2013-14 and was the tight ends coach from 2015-20. He helped turn tight end Zach Ertz into a three-time Pro Bowl player and picked up a Super Bowl LII ring after the Eagles’ stunning 41-33 victory over New England on Feb. 4, 2018.

Peelle studied all of Pitts’ film during the pre-draft process.

“You saw a couple of times where he would get the No. 1 defender,” Peelle said. “Against Alabama a couple of times, (cornerback Patrick) Surtain was out there on him. Against South Carolina (Jaycee Horn) lined up against him. Then they would roll coverage to him here and there.”

Peelle saw constant improvement in Pitts’ play.

“What was most impressive for me was the growth that he had from (age) 19 to 20,” Peelle said. “You could see the improvement, and he still has a long ways to go. That’s not a knock. He’s only 20 years old.”

Pitts finished his career at Florida with 100 catches for 1,492 yards (14.9 average) and 18 touchdowns. He became Florida’s all-time leader for receiving yards by a tight end and ranked second in career receptions at the position.

“He’s got good body control,” Peelle said. “He can kind of go up, twist and turn and adjust to balls off his frame.”

Smith had four tight ends play more than 200 snaps last season with the Titans.

In addition to Pitts, the Falcons have six other tight ends heading to training camp.

The team elected not to pick up the fifth-year option for tight end Hayden Hurst. He’s in a “prove it” year and needs to have a big season. Behind Pitts and Hurst are Lee Smith (blocking tight end), Jaeden Graham, Parker Hesse, Ryan Becker and John Raine.

Smith was not shy when he was asked if he expected Pitts to start the opening game.

“Yeah, I mean, sure,” Smith said. “He’s going to play. That’s the anticipation. He’s going to have to earn those reps. The way we’ll play in multiple personnel groups. ... We anticipate he should have a big role for us.”

Peelle can’t wait to get started with Pitts.

“When you see a player that constantly gets better throughout their time, that’s exciting,” Peelle said.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:

Part 1: Quarterbacks

Part 2: Running Backs

Part 3: Offensive line

Part 4: Special Teams

Part 5: Wide receivers/Tight ends

Part 6: Defensive line

Part 7: Linebackers

Part 8: Secondary

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

OFFENSE

WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Tajae Sharpe, 88 Frank Darby, 13 Christian Blake, 86 Antonio Nunn

WR 14 Russell Gage, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 12 Chris Rowland, 82 Austin Trammell, 16 Jeff Badet

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 William Sweet, 72 Willie Beavers

LG 68 Josh Andrews, 77 Jalen Mayfield, 66 Willie Wright, 62 Bryce Hargrove

C 61 Matt Hennessy, 67 Drew Dalman, 65 Joe Sculthorpe

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 64 Ryan Neuzil, 75 Kion Smith, 71 Sam Jones

RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 73 Matt Gono, 77 Jalen Mayfield

TE 8 Kyle Pitts, 81 Hayden Hurst, 85 Lee Smith, 87 Jaeden Graham, 46 Parker Hesse, 80 Ryan Becker, 89 John Raine

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 5 AJ McCarron, 15 Feleipe Franks

HB 28 Mike Davis, 30 Qadree Ollison, 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 36 Tony Brooks-James, 25 Javian Hawkins, 42 Caleb Huntley

FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DL 90 Marlon Davidson, 55 Steven Means, 95 Ta’Quon Graham, 79 Chris Slayton

DL 97 Grady Jarrett, 93 Zac Dawe, 94 Deadrin Senat, 98 John Atkins

DL 96 Tyeler Davison, 50 John Cominsky, 99 Jonathan Bullard, 69 Olive Sagapolu

OLB 56 Dante Fowler, 92 Adetokunbo Ogundeji, 42 Shareef Miller

ILB 45 Deion Jones, 51 Brandon Copeland, 53 Erroll Thompson

ILB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 43 Mykal Walker, 48 Dorian Etheridge

OLB 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 49 Kobe Jones, 59 George Obinna

RCB 22 Fabian Moreau, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 29 Chris Williamson

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Tyler Hall, 34 Darren Hall, 38 Marcus Murphy, 41 J.R. Pace

NCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 25 Delrick Abrams, 35 Avery Williams

FS 23 Erik Harris, 27 Richie Grant, 37 Dwayne Johnson

SS 21 Duron Harmon, 32 Jaylinn Hawkins, 39 T.J. Green, 38 Marcus Murphy

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo

P 4 Sterling Hofrichter, 9 Dom Maggio

LS 47 Josh Harris

KO 7 Younghoe Koo

KR 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 12 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams

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