It’s hard to believe that we’re only one season removed from an Atlanta Falcons offense that featured a Pro Bowl caliber triggerman (Indianapolis Colts quarterback Matt Ryan) and one of the NFL’s most formidable receiving duos with wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones (free agent). Entering 2022, all three of them are out of the picture along with then-No. 3 wideout Russell Gage, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the offseason.
It’s a complete overhaul.
Into Ryan’s spot steps veteran Marcus Mariota, who has 61 starts under his belt, though none of them have come since 2019 as he spent the last two years as QB2 for the Las Vegas Raiders. Atlanta also spent a third-round selection on Desmond Ridder, who could take the reins if the Falcons bottom out early on and the coaching staff wants to take an extended look at the rookie.
Either way, Atlanta is taking a significant step backwards from Ryan, who earned four Pro Bowl berths during his time in Georgia and was named MVP in 2016. There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for this offense outside of tight end Kyle Pitts, but it’s still worth looking at the options outside.
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With Ridley suspended for the duration of the 2022 season, the Falcons used the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft on London, who checks in at an imposing 6-foot-4, 219 pounds. With the extreme lack of established depth for the Falcons at receiver, London will be counted on to contribute from Week 1 on. In that sense, he’s arguably stepping into the best situation of any rookie wideout. Atlanta will be patient with him because there’s no good alternative.
For his part, London boasts a potent blend of size, speed, and athleticism, and his ability to track the ball in flight and compete for 50/50 balls should serve him immediately. There’s work to be done as a route runner, having been asked to run basic patterns during his tenure at USC. He bears a resemblance to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown as a physical presence, who played under new head coach Arthur Smith with the Tennessee Titans; in two years with Smith as offensive coordinator, Brown averaged a 67-972-8 line.
Acquired from the Las Vegas Raiders in May, Edwards will compete for a starting job. In two seasons since the Silver and Black selected him in the third round, Edwards has flashed the ability to get deep — he has a career yards per catch of 17.0 — but offered little in the way of consistency. Following the release of Henry Ruggs, the Raiders desperately needed someone to step up outside of Hunter Renfrow, but it ended up being Zay Jones (Jacksonville Jaguars) who emerged. That’s why Jones landed big money from the Jags in free agency and Edwards was dumped for a fifth-rounder.
Zaccheaus’ modest 31-406-3 line from last season makes him the most productive returning wideout on Atlanta’s roster. The undersized receiver has done well for himself, making the team initially in 2019 as an undrafted free agent and sticking for three seasons.
Zaccheaus has some juice with the ball in his hands and could be utilized in a gadget role — perhaps the same type of thing teammate Cordarrelle Patterson graduated out of last year. His hands remain suspect, however, and it’s tough to envision Zaccheaus as more than a fourth or fifth option barring serious injury issues.
Fantasy football outlook
Let’s be clear, Pitts is going to function as the No. 1 target in Atlanta in 2022, and the actual wideouts will line up for what’s left. Of this group, only London has the look of someone to target on draft day. Sure, he’s a bit raw as a route runner, but with that level of physicality he can take a lot of short throws and turn them into positive gains. Plus, his size and jump-ball ability bode well for the red zone. London could be a low-end WR3 or strong WR4. Maybe Edwards warrants a spot on a watch list, but even that feels optimistic.