The NFL announced on Monday that Calvin Ridley is suspended through the 2022 season for violating the league's gambling policy.
Ridley played five games in 2021, spending much of the season on the reserve/non-football illness list to focus on his mental health. Ridley can appeal the decision within three days. If he doesn't appeal or loses that plea, he can apply for reinstatement on or after Feb. 15, 2023.
With Ridley gone for at least next season, the Falcons already depleted receiving core is now essentially barren. Frank Darby is the only player that caught a pass in 2021 and is still under contract for next season. Darby served mainly as a gunner on special teams in 2021, active for just 10 games and catching his only pass in a blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
"I'm here now, and they see something in me, so it's time for me to step up, to grow up," Darby said at the end of the regular season. "I already been through 18 weeks. Once it comes, I know I'mma be ready to go next year."
Olamide Zaccheaus, who emerged as a reliable pass catcher alongside Russell Gage this season, is a restricted free agent heading into 2022. The Falcons can tender Zaccheaus with either a first or second-round designation. This means that if Zacchaeus were to sign with another team, and the Falcons gave him a second-round tender, the Falcons could match the offer or receive a second-round pick from the team Zacccheaus signs with. They could also use an original-round tender, but then they wouldn't get compensation for the undrafted free agent. They would, however, have the right to match any offer he received
Zaccheaus finished the season with 31 receptions for 406 yards and three touchdowns. His best game came against the New Orleans Saints, when he caught three passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
Russell Gage served as wide receiver 1 in 2021. After struggling early in the season with a high ankle sprain that kept him out of games, he became effective in the latter part of the season. Gage had 500 yards over his final six games, including an 11-catch, 130-yard game against Jacksonville and a nine-catch, 126-yard game against the San Francisco 49ers that included multiple highlight-worthy grabs.
Gage said following the final game of the season that the Falcons would have "first priority" in free agency, but he will certainly have a market from other teams. Re-signing Gage may now be more of a priority than it was at the season's close.
Outside of those receivers, the Falcons also have Chad Hansen, Austin Trammell, and Brayden Lenius signed to the roster. Trammell suited up for two games for the Falcons in 2021, playing seven snaps on special teams. Lenius spent time in the Canadian Football league before signing a futures contract with the Falcons following the season's end. Hansen has 330 yards and 26 receptions over his career, and he has had stints with the Jets, Texans, Patriots, Saints, Broncos, Texans, and Lions.
With just Darby as a lock to be on the Falcons roster as a receiver in 2022, wide receiver just became the Falcons' biggest need in 2022. 2021 was the first season in Matt Ryan's career where he didn't have a first-round talent at receiver like Ridley, Julio Jones, or Roddy White at receiver. The Falcons could use their eighth overall pick on a guy like Drake London, Treylon Burks, or any other talented receiver in this year's class.
They could also use their two second-round picks on receivers or trade into the first round for a pass-catcher. There is the free agency option, where Davante Adams and Allen Robinson headline a talented class of wide receivers.
Regardless, the Falcons receiving group will likely look a lot different next season. How Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith rebuild that group while addressing other pressing needs will be essential in how competitive the Falcons are in 2022.