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How the Falcons' three offensive rookies fared in 2018


The Falcons' decision to select receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft came as a surprise to some, but it's a decision that looks very wise in hindsight.


Ridley was viewed by many draft analysts to be the top receiver prospect in last year's draft, and he certainly played like it during his rookie year. But Ridley was just one of three offensive players Atlanta added in the draft, joining running back Ito Smith and fellow receiver Russell Gage.

Entering their second season, Ridley and Smith figure to once again have big roles on an offensive with quality skill players, and Gage should continue to be a special teams weapon with a unique role on the offense. Before camp gets underway for the 2019 season, let's take a look back at how this offensive trio fared in their first season.

Calvin Ridley

  • Drafted: Round 1 (No. 26 overall)
  • Position: Wide receiver

Ridley led all rookie wide receivers in both yards (821) and touchdowns (10) in 2018, living up to the expectations of a first-round draft pick. Six of Ridley's touchdown catches came in the first four games of last season, making him the first rookie in NFL history to accomplish that feat.

As could be expected of a first-round pick, Ridley was a big part of the Falcons' offense right out of the gate. He played 45 snaps in Atlanta's season opener and, aside from a Week 6 game against Tampa Bay in which Ridley left the game early due to an injury, he played no fewer than 29 snaps throughout the 2018 campaign. Ridley played 60.75 percent of Atlanta's offensive snaps, the third-most among receivers.

Route running was Ridley's calling card coming out of Alabama, but his speed also proved to be a major weapon for the Falcons. After finishing with 64 catches for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie, Ridley looks to be a legitimate threat for Atlanta's already-potent passing offense.

  • Performance: Above average

Ito Smith

  • Drafted: Round 4 (No. 126 overall)
  • Position: Running back

With Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman established as the Falcons' 1-2 punch out of the backfield, Smith was expected to be the third option for Atlanta as he developed throughout his first season. After Freeman suffered a knee injury in the season opener, all of that changed.

With Freeman only playing in two games all season, Smith quickly found himself as the No. 2 back on the depth chart behind Coleman, and he grew into the role as the season progressed. After seeing no playing time in Atlanta's first game, Smith then averaged 24 snaps per game the rest of the season before a knee injury landed him on injured reserve with two games left to play.

An effective slash-and-cut runner in the mold of Freeman, Smith performed admirably in his rookie season, adding value as both a runner and a pass-catcher. Smith ended his rookie season with 90 carries for 315 yards and four touchdowns; he also caught 27 passes for 152 yards. Smith's 467 total yards and four scores are comparable to the production Freeman and Coleman had in their first seasons. Freeman had 473 total yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, while Coleman had 406 total yards and one score.

  • Performance: Average

Russell Gage

  • Drafted: Round 6 (No. 194 overall)
  • Position: Wide receiver

Gage is an interesting player to evaluate, because much of the value he brought to the team probably went unnoticed by the casual fan. Enter the 2018 draft, the Falcons wanted to get faster on special teams, particularly in their coverage units. When Atlanta drafted Gage in the sixth round, it was with that in mind.

Although the Falcons did work Gage in at times as a type of gadget receiver, he only finished with six catches for 63 yards. Yet Gage played nearly 64 percent of the team's snaps on special teams, the third-most of any Falcons player. As a gunner on kick and punt coverage, Gage recorded seven tackles, which were tied for the third-most on the team.

After spending a year learning from Justin Bethel, a Pro-Bowl special teamer, Gage should continue to make strides in an important, if often overlooked, aspect of the game. It remains to be seen how involved Gage is with the Falcons' offense, but he solidified a need for Atlanta on special teams.

  • Performance: Average

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