Wide receiver is a position the Atlanta Falcons can’t ignore this offseason. Not when doubts persist about the future of potential trade bait Calvin Ridley. Not when 2021’s team-leading wideout Russell Gage is an impending free agent.
Fortunately for Falcons’ general manager Terry Fontenot, there’s no shortage of quality receivers available, both in free agency and the 2022 NFL draft. It’s in the former category where the Falcons can find immediate help and possibly replace Ridley with a legitimate primary pass-catcher who plays for an AFC contender but is set to test this year’s veteran market.
One NFL writer believes this particular receiver, who is prolific inside the red zone, should be the Falcons’ priority in free agency.
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‘True No. 1’ Wideout Deemed Perfect for Matt Ryan
There’s no escaping the fact Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan needs a wide receiver opposing teams fear. Ridley was becoming that player before he decided to take time away from football for his mental wellbeing.
Now Ridley’s an oft-mooted trade target for many teams, including the New England Patriots, per The Draft Network’s Lucio Vainesman. Dealing for Ridley would reaffirm the Pats as contenders in the AFC, but it’s another sleeping conference power who could help the Falcons find a replacement.
That’s the view of CBS Sports’ Jordan Dajani, who has named one member of the Los Angeles Chargers as worth pursuing: “Mike Williams had a career year in 2021, and it may be time for him to spread his wings and be that true No. 1 wide receiver. The Falcons need help at wide receiver with Calvin Ridley’s future in jeopardy and Russell Gage testing the free agency waters. Atlanta is currently in the red when it comes to projected cap space, but Arthur Smith needs to sign a true No. 1 wide receiver to boost his offensive attack. You’re not going to get much out of Matt Ryan if it’s him and Kyle Pitts vs. the world.”
Williams would surely be a dream get for Fontenot and Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith. Both know they need a dynamic, field-stretcher on the perimeter of the passing game.
Smith and Fontenot would struggle to find better than Williams, who has made 26 touchdown catches since entering the league as a top-10 pick in 2017. The 27-year-old caught nine scoring passes last season, including this one against the Denver Broncos in Week 17 that helped quarterback Justin Herbert become a record-breaker:
The play also showcased Williams’ talent as a deep threat. From his 76 receptions in 2021, Williams averaged 15.3 yards on first down and 19.9 on third down, according to ESPN.
Those are the kind of numbers that will appeal to a quarterback like Ryan. The latter still has a strong arm, evidenced by his 44 completions covering 20 yards or more last season, with seven going for 40-plus, per the league’s official site.
Ryan’s stats in those categories would take a significant jump with Williams in the lineup. He’s been inconsistent since being drafted seventh overall, but Williams enjoyed a breakout campaign with the Chargers last term, amassing a career-best 1,146 receiving yards.
Williams started the season in fine fettle, per StatMuse, finally putting together the consistency that had eluded him during his first four seasons:
Performances like those mean Williams is likely to cash in big during this year’s free-agency period. That could be bad news for the Falcons, who need to free up some cash if they hope to recruit from the premium end of the market.
Falcons Need to Enter Chase for Top Talents
However he does it, Fontenot needs to find a way to enter the chase for the top talents in this year’s pool, including Williams. It won’t be easy when Spotrac.com currently projects the Falcons to be $6,590,266 over the salary cap.
There are options for freeing up some more cash, including extending Ryan’s contract. Back in December, Deen Worley of Falcons Wire spelled out why an extension is the best way to generate more funds: “Adding more years to his current deal will not only allow for the team to distribute his $48 million cap hit for next season in a more digestible manner, but it also has the potential to add $18 million to this year’s cap budget.”
Ryan may even be willing to rework his deal if it means getting him a standout wide receiver to pair with record-breaking tight end Kyle Pitts. A Williams and Pitts combo would surely leave the Falcons better placed to take advantage of an NFC South weakened by Tom Brady’s retirement from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Maybe Ryan doesn’t have to take the hit, not when Fontenot has other options beyond messing with with his quarterback’s contract. Trading defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who is set to earn $16.5 million in base salary this year, is another tangible way to ease cap restraints. So is dumping disappointing middle linebacker Deion Jones and his $20,018,431 cap hit for 2022.
If the Falcons make the right moves, there’s no reason why Fontenot can’t sign an explosive receiver like Williams and still have room to fix the pass rush and offensive line.