Editor’s note: This is the eighth of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before the start of training camp.
While four-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones elected to stay away from the Falcons’ offseason program and skip the mandatory minicamp, the Falcons tried their best to remain upbeat.
They probably made one of those “Keep Calm: Julio will be back” signs and posted in the locker room and flashed it on the big screen televisions.
“I understand that there is a business side to this sport, too,” quarterback Matt Ryans said recently. “I don’t like getting involved in other people’s business. I know I don’t like speaking about my business, so it’s not my place to get into that.”
The Falcons wanted Jones to attend, especially after last year when he missed the offseason because of foot surgery. Jones attended charity events and worked out with former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, according to social media posts.
Jones hasn’t said much publicly, but in a TMZ interview he discussed being a Falcon for life. Falcons owner Arthur Blank expressed a similar sentiment at the owner’s meeting here in May.
“As far as drama or anything like that, he’s one of the best teammates you could ever be around,” Ryan said. “One of the most unselfish players. It’s all about winning. Those are the things that you love. He’s great for our organization and our team.
“Other than that, they’ll resolve it and get that stuff worked out.”
The clock is ticking as the Falcons set to report for training camp July 26. The Falcons haven’t had a holdout since Roddy White missed six days of the 2009 camp, while trying to get a contract extension.
“I’ve been through this before with other players,” Ryan said. “It’s part of it. I’m confident that he’ll be ready to go when he gets here. I’m really positive about that.”
According to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, Jones can be fined a total of $84,435. Once new or reconfigured deals are done, the fines are often waived by the team as a show of good will. However, Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian said he used to make all agents pay the fine.
When Jones returns, the spotlight will not only be on him, but on the entire receiving corps, which led the league in dropped passes (30) and were a major part of the offense’s descent from first in the league in scoring to 15th. The group, along with the running backs, had seven deflected passes that turned into interceptions.
Here’s are the drop count: Jones (seven), Mohamed Sanu (six), running back Devonta Freeman (four), running back Tevin Coleman (three), tight end Austin Hooper (three), Taylor Gabriel (two), Justin Hardy (two), Marvin Hall (two) and tight end Levine Toilolo (one).
The drops were staggering after the team had just 16, the third fewest in the league, in 2016.
“We’ve got work to do in that area,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “It wasn’t just one player, and it wasn’t just one position.”
With Jones, Sanu and first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley, the Falcons are hoping to have a talented trio or wide receivers. Gabriel and Nick Williams were not re-signed.
Justin Hardy and Marvin Hall return and the Falcons are high on Reggie Davis, who spent last season on the practice squad.
The Falcons drafted LSU’s Russell Gage in the sixth round and there are five other undrafted wide receivers on the 90-man roster.
Ridley is expected to replace Gabriel, who signed with Chicago in free agency. The Falcons believe Ridley can add that big-play capability that Gabriel provided in 2016, when he had 11 plays of 19 yards or more. That number dipped to four last season.
“With Calvin you certainly see the ability,” assistant wide receivers coach David Brock said. “The thing that has really impressed me about Calvin is that he is an extremely hard worker. Really good in the classroom. He does a great job of having the ability to take it from the meeting room to the field.”
Ridley also showed that he was a humble.
“Those characteristics, those traits, give you a chance to be a really good player,” Brock said. “He’s done a good job in practice. He’s working on the relationships with the quarterbacks. He’s working on the relationships with the other players in the room.”
Sanu had a 69.8 percent catch ratio as he hauled in 67 of 96 targets, had 703 yards and tied a career-high with five touchdowns last season.
“Mohammed, on top of being a dynamic player, he’s an excellent person,” Brock said. “He’s really a giving guy to the young players. He’s got great personality.”
In addition to addressing the dropped passes, the Falcons plan to improve their yards-after-catch (YAC).
Detroit’s Golden Tate led the league’s wide receivers with 639 yards after the catch followed by Miami’s Jarvis Landry with 511. Landry signed with Cleveland in free agency.
Jones was third with 504 yards after the catch.
Hooper was second on the team with 265 yards after the catch, but ranked 65th overall in the league. Freeman had 256 yards after the catch, which was 72nd in the league. Sanu ranked 79th with 245 yards, running back Tevin Coleman ranked 87th (228 yards) and Gabriel ranked 90th (225 yards).
The Falcons were second in league with 2,382 yards after the catch in 2016 and dropped to sixth with 1,897 in 2017.
In 2016, 48 percent of the 4,960 yards were gained after the catch and that percentage dropped to 45.7 percent last season.
“Getting yards after the catch is one of our (main) focuses,” assistant head coach/wide receivers Raheem Morris said. “We were at the point last year where we threw a lot more shorter passes to get it to Julio so he’d be able to run.”
Morris believes Sanu and Hardy can improve their YAC numbers.
“(Sanu) does a phenomenal job of transitioning with the ball, which I love,” Morris said. “The other guy is Hardy. You want to be able to get those guys the ball so that they have the ability to run.”
90-MAN ROSTER ANALYSIS
Part 1: Defensive Line
Part 2: Linebackers
Part 3: Cornerbacks
Part 4: Safeties
Part 5: Special teams
Part 6: Quarterbacks
Part 7: Running backs
Coming Wednesday: Tight ends
Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 18, Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Reggie Davis, 86 Lamar Jordan, 16 Taj Williams
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill
LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas
C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 J.C. Hassenauer
RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 62 Salesi Uhatafe
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray, 80 Troy Mangen, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Christian Blake, 19 Dontez Byrd, 7 Devin Gray
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett, 6 Kurt Benkert
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 41 Terrence Magee, 32 Justin Crawford, 35 Malik Williams
FB 40 Daniel Marx, 43 Luke McNitt, 30 Ricky Ortiz
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 96 Mackendy Cheridor
DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Garrison Smith,
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer, 99 Jon Cunningham
DE 44 Vic Beasley, 90 Derrick Shelby, 55 J’Terius Jones
WLB 42 Duke Riley, 54 Foyesade Oluokun
MLB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe, 53 Emmanuel Smith
SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 56 Anthony Winbush, 49 Richard Jarvis
CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 28 Justin Bethel, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden, 43 Chris Lammons
NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 42 Tyson Graham, 30 Joseph Putu
FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch, 41 Jason Hall
SS 22 Keanu Neal, Ron Parker, 35 Secdrick Cooper
K 3 Matt Bryant, 1 David Marvin
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall, 30 Ito Smith
PR 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.