Is bigger better? Atlanta Falcons continue to bring in tall pass-catchers

Bryan Edwards, whom the Falcons traded for on Friday, ranked fourth in the NFL in yards per reception in 2021. Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Arthur Smith didn’t want anyone to think he was against the little guy. He said so more than once Saturday -- whenever the Atlanta Falcons second-year coach was asked about the group of wide receivers he and general manager Terry Fontenot have put together.

He has no problem with shorter receivers. He pointed out Kalif Raymond (5-foot-9), whom he coached as offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans before becoming Atlanta's head coach, and the Falcons’ Olamide Zaccheaus (5-8) as receivers under 6-feet with whom he particularly enjoyed working.

But almost half the receivers, and so many of the Falcons pass-catchers now, have one distinct characteristic: Height.

“It’s a factor, but it’s not. ... I know the popular narrative is it has to be this height or we want the bigger receiver,” Smith said after drafting 6-foot-4 receiver Drake London with the No. 11 overall pick in April. “It’d certainly help, but that’s not [it]. ... There’s some really good players that got taken.

“We’ll play with anybody that can help this team.”

This season, it is trending to bigger is better. In the receiver room along with London is recently acquired Bryan Edwards and Auden Tate, who are 6-5. They could be, along with Zaccheaus, Atlanta’s top four players at the position this fall.

Last year’s first-round pick, tight end Kyle Pitts, is 6-6, and every tight end except for John Raine is at least 6-2. Cordarrelle Patterson, who led the team in rushing last season, also led the team in receptions, and he is 6-2.

Of the 12 receivers the Falcons have on the roster, five are at least 6-3, including potential starters in London and Edwards. Since London played some slot at USC, the Falcons could put out a lineup where their pass-catchers are 6-2 (Patterson), 6-3 (Edwards), 6-4 (London), 6-5 (Tate) and 6-6 (Pitts). Or other vertically helpful combinations.

While Smith, a noted basketball fan, isn’t necessarily putting together an NBA roster, it certainly could look that way. That could be beneficial for a quarterback getting accustomed to starting again in Marcus Mariota if he were to win the starting job.

It also could be beneficial for rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder, should he see playing time this season.

“Being able to go up and get the ball, but being able to just make plays when plays aren’t there to be made,” Ridder said. “Play scrambles down, break down and it’s a one-on-one matchup, trusting in your guys and knowing that maybe if it was a smaller guy that maybe he’s not jumping as high or maybe they got a little bit of a matchup with a bigger corner or whatever it may be.

“But just having that catch radius and [knowing] that you’re able to throw it anywhere and them going make the play, I think that’s huge.”

Having this type of pass-catching group is rare. According to ESPN Stats & Information, just two teams have had four players catch 50 or more passes in a single season at 6-2 or taller -- the 2013 and 2014 Chicago Bears.

The Bears’ top four targets in 2013:

  • 6-5 wide receiver Brandon Marshall (164 targets, 100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 touchdowns)

  • 6-3 receiver Alshon Jeffery (148 targets, 89 catches, 1,421 yards, 7 touchdowns)

  • 6-2 running back Matt Forte (95 targets, 74 catches, 594 yards, 3 touchdowns)

  • 6-6 tight end Martellus Bennett (94 targets, 65 catches, 759 yards, 5 touchdowns)

The following season, Chicago’s top six targeted players were all at least 6-2 when receiver Marquess Wilson and tight end Dante Rosario were Nos. 5 and 6. Only two players that season under 6-2 had double-digit targets from quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

Smith has used tall players in his offense before. At Tennessee in 2020, he had running back Derrick Henry, who is 6-3, as is receiver Corey Davis, who was a starter for the Titans. Their other top receiver was A.J. Brown, who is 6-1.

All of Smith’s tight ends in 2020 were at least 6-2, including Anthony Firkser, who could be the Falcons’ No. 2 tight end this season. In 2019, Smith also had a very tall receiver corps -- Davis, Brown and 6-2 Tajae Sharpe all started at least six games -- but they did have a quartet of receivers who played at least one game and were under 6-foot.

It’s similar to last season in Atlanta when Zaccheaus started eight games because of an injury to Russell Gage (6-foot) and the absence of Calvin Ridley (6-1) for the second half of the season because of mental health. On this roster, the Falcons had five receivers under 6-foot.

Smith was adamant “we’re not going to sit here and discriminate against under 6-foot receivers if that’s what you’re trying to imply.”

So no, Smith isn’t exclusively looking for bigger receivers -- but this offseason, Atlanta has seemed intent on acquiring them.