Under the old Mike Mularkey offensive regime, the fourth wide receiver was about as integral as a backup long snapper. You may hear someone say their name, but without an injury, you were rarely going to see them on the field or make a play.
From a snap perspective, I believe Eric Weems was our fourth wide receiver, amassing 11 receptions with very few snaps. There simply was not space for a fourth, or in many cases, a third wide receiver, with multiple tight ends, fullbacks, offensive linemen, or anyone who else who can block.
Now Dirk Koetter still remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside of an enigma, thanks to his time in Jacksonville. Koetter was hamstrung with Jack Del Rio and a complete lack of offensive playmakers short of MJD, and how his offense will look remains uncertain to probably everyone except our new offensive coordinator. However, with everything the front office has said since the end of the season, it is clear they felt the team had the talent but lacked the coaching expertise to push for anything except a quick and embarrassing playoff run. This is supported by Atlanta's lack of movement in free agency and addressing the offensive line and fullback position with the first three picks in the draft.
Back to the issue at hand. We know one thing for certain: Koetter favors the four-verticals route concept. While there are a number of variations with exactly how to implement this, one must believe that Atlanta will utilize a fourth wide receiver much more than under our prior offensive scheme, enough to run the four-verticals and exploit defensive personnel. The four-verticals will send out four pass-catchers to attempt to stretch the defense and create mismatches in the middle of the field. With Douglas likely matching up against the nickelback or a safety, the fourth wide receiver will likely play against a safety or (god willing) a linebacker. For only matchup purposes, I would look at the smaller, quicker wide receivers who can slip right past the bigger defender.
Atlanta will need a good fourth wide receiver, and that player must be on the roster. So who will get the nod after Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas? Atlanta certainly has plenty to work with, as Kerry Meier is returning from an ACL injury, and a slew of UDFA's, such as 6'2" 210lbs. Michael Calvin of Cal, 6'2" 216lbs. Kevin Cone of Georgia Tech, 6'1" 205lbs. Drew Davis of Oregon, 6'1" 195lbs. Marcus Jackson of Lamar, 5'11" (standing on a phonebook, I imagine), 160lbs. Cody Pearcy out of Huntingdon, 5'7" 188lbs. James Rodgers out of Oregon State, and 6'4" 204lbs. Kenny Stafford out of Toledo.
Yes, according to the official Falcons web page, Atlanta has 11 wide receivers on the roster. This is way too early to be guessing which undrafted free agent will shine enough for a roster spot, if any, but someone will be replacing Eric Weems. The wide receivers that interest me are Jacquizz's brother James, and Pearcy, who was mentioned by Bill Parcells on ESPN just before the draft as a player to watch.
Now first is Rodgers , who comes with serious concerns about his knee, and is very similar to Jacquizz. Smaller player, more quick than fast (evidenced by both of their disappointing 40 times) who would be great in the four-verticals as well as special teams. His explosiveness, and ability to make defenders miss, made Rodgers a projected high pick before the injury. In my opinion, Atlanta needs a player like Rodgers, perfect inside, who can slip around wide receivers and give Ryan a quality pass catcher in the middle of the field.
With Rodgers being small at 5'7" and 188lbs., Pearcy may still occasionally get shoved into a locker at 5'11" (from the Falcons official site, I still say he is shorter) and only 160lbs. For reference, the tiny Darren Sproles is only 5'6", but still 190lbs. Pearcy will need to add, at least, 15 lbs. for his own safety, and eventually another 10 just to stay in the NFL. However, Pearcy has ridiculous speed (sometimes 4.3 flat), but even more than that, is ridiculous agility and explosion you do not see in the average sized pass catcher. As Rob Rang of CBS points out, Peacy's 40 and vertical jump bested every player at the combine. Similar to Rodgers, Pearcy will have trouble against more physical defensive backs in press coverage, but has that elite play-making ability that when used correctly, could turn him into a force as our future fourth wide receiver?
The Falcons future fourth wide receiver will contribute on special teams, hopefully replacing Weems as a special teams gunner and perhaps returner. I am a big fan of Kerry Meier, an explosive player with fantastic hands, but he may have difficulty coming back from his ACL injury and may not have the top speed to be a gunner. My biggest concern with Meier is that Douglas had a terrible year when first coming back from his ACL injury, even though he had more than a year to heal up. Most players do not seem to get back to the top of their ability until about two years removed from ripping up their knee.
The Falcons fourth wideout has changed from an afterthought to potentially a huge need. With the loss of Weems, a lack of additions, and Meier still facing a steep learning curve, expect one free agent to make the roster and contribute this season, with perhaps another making the roster in our more pass-happy offense in the more pass-heavy NFL.
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