Everyone in the NFL is big, strong, and fast. Those are prerequisites to play the game at the highest level and the true edges are gained in the margins. For Russell Gage, the key to his continued improvement and unlocking his full potential is playing fast. It may seem simple, but that's the biggest nugget of wisdom that Julio Jones passed on to Gage.
"Run. That was [Julio's] biggest thing," said Gage. "Speed off the ball and running. A lot of guys get too caught up thinking into their routes. Understand that even if you make a mistake, make it full speed. A receiver's biggest asset is his speed. Whatever it is, you need to display it."
The loss of Jones leaves a void in the Falcons offense, but Gage and his teammates aren't dwelling on that loss. The focus is quite the opposite really. In a fitting tribute to the departed star, Gage's gaze is set on playing fast and the best way for him to play fast is to understand his role.
"Being on the same page as Matt [Ryan] and understanding what Arthur wants is big," said Gage. "Those things come hand in hand. When you get to playing faster, it's all because you are more comfortable, and you know, this is what they want out of me."
A sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Gage has increased his playing time in each of his three previous seasons. As a rookie, he played sparingly on offense logging just six catches for 63 yards with his primary role coming on special teams. The 2019 season started in much the same way until Atlanta dealt Mohamed Sanu to the New England Patriots after Week 7. In the first seven games of that season, Gage caught four passes for 44 yards and was targeted just eight times.
Following the Sanu trade, Gage made an immediate impact catching seven passes on nine targets for 58 yards against the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn't a simple plug-and-play situation though. His understanding and ability to play fast had a direct correlation to his play.
"My first game was Seattle and there was a lot of things going through my head," Gage said of his increased offensive role in 2019. "There was a lot of 'I don't want to mess this up, I have to understand my landmark here.' And Julio came up to me and reminded me your strongest point, your biggest asset is going to be running, running full speed. That's how you make guys make mistakes."
Gage became a reliable target for Ryan during the second half of his sophomore season. In the final nine games of 2019, he tallied 45 receptions for 402 yards and one touchdown to run his season totals to 446 yards on 49 catches. The tried and true sports cliché is that the game slows down for players as they gain experience and confidence but in Gage's case, he's tried to flip that script.
"I cleared my mind more and just ran," said Gage. "I came off the ball as fast as I could and whatever happens, happens. I think that's the best way to play. It's the best way to play mistake free as well."
If his performance in 2019 came as a surprise, then what he did in 2020 was a validation of his potential. Gage set career bests with 72 receptions, 786 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass, connecting with Calvin Ridley for a 39-yard score against the Los Angeles Chargers. Per Pro Football Focus, Gage earned a 76.4 overall grade and a 73.7 receiving grade good for third on the team behind Jones and Ridley. It would be easy for Gage to rest on his laurels and expect that his numbers will continue to rise, but you don't go from sixth-round pick to starter with that mindset.
"Something that really boosts my confidence is understanding what I could become. Understanding the sky is the limit for me," said Gage. "I know I have so much more to do, so much more I can do, and so much more to prove. I think that for me really motivates me, gives me confidence, and pushes me to keep raising the bar."
The increased playing time has coincided with an increase in production for Gage. Much of that is due to the understanding that he's gained through seeing how teams have tried to play Jones, Ridley, or tight end Hayden Hurst. As well as the rapport he's developed with Ryan.
"Over time, as I am in the game, I get the feel. I understand what Matt feels. I understand what Matt wants," said Gage. "It helps me play faster and ultimately it helps him play faster. It builds trust and we can be more effective on the field together."
Before heading into the 2020 NFL year, we are going to look back at the best images from players on the active roster. Take a look at the best of wide receiver Russell Gage.
In a similar twist of fate to Sanu's departure, the expectations are that Gage's role will expand with the loss of Jones. He did gain some useful experience with this last season. In the seven games that Jones missed in 2020, Gage was targeted 45 times and caught 30 passes for 340 yards with two touchdowns. For Gage, experience is the best teacher.
"There's no better teacher than the game," Gage said. "Being out there and taking those reps really helped me to settle in, settle into those spots, the Z or X position or whatever it may be. I'm going to take a lot of that stuff and carry it over into this year."
Gage has worked his way from sixth-round special teamer to burgeoning star over the last three seasons. He's shown that he can play at a high level and be a key piece to what this Falcons offense can be in 2021. But he knows that nothing is given in this league and all he can do is keep playing fast.
"I understand my role may have increased but I'm ready for it," said Gage. "We're going to keep moving forward."