Russell Gage isn't expected to be the new No. 1 receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. He is expected to be on the field and play the best "Robin" role for Calvin Ridley's "Batman" persona.
Gage, a sixth-round pick from the 2018 class, strutted his stuff during the 2020 season on offense. With Julio Jones out for over half the season, it was a chance for the former LSU wideout to prove he could hang with the first-team offense.
Asked and answered by the season's end. Gage tallied a career-high in catches (72), yards (786), touchdown (4), and yards per play (10.1). Now, he'll be asked to do it again.
Jones is gone via a trade to the Titans. Ridley now the top target for the franchise under a new front office. Gage will now take over Ridley's No. 2 position.
The biggest question is if he can handle the pressure.
Well, can he?
This isn't a one-year wonder who became a productive player in an instant. For two years, he has grown along the way. Following the trade of Mohamed Sanu to New England, he became the team's No. 3 option.
In his first seven games of 2019, Gage recorded four catches for 44 yards. By the season's end, he had 49 receptions and over 400 yards.
New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith has already spoken of the new offense and how Gage's role will expand. So far, the new man in charge has liked what he's seen from the 25-year-old target.
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“Russ has done a nice job in the slot, but we’ll move Russ all over the place and then we got to make a decision as we get closer to the season, all right, we’re giving him a shot here,” Smith said last month, according to ESPN's Michael Rothstein. “He’s done well. He’s grown his game. Done this with a lot of players and everybody’s on a different timeline.
“So we envision Russ playing multiple spots."
Gage won't only be asked to step up on the depth chart, but also on positioning. He'll likely be playing more that just in the slot entering Year 4, with reps coming both inside and on the perimeter.
Some view slot receivers as the "third option" due to coverage. Even if inside, he'll still be a high-end target. Last season, Matt Ryan targeted Gage 95 times.
“When you get to playing faster, it’s all because you’re more comfortable and you know this is what they want out of you, this is what they want out of me in this coverage,” Gage said, according to the team's website. “I know here they want me to break out. I know here they want me to turn in. Those are all feels and things you can’t really learn unless you’re in the game.”
Gage is being asked to not only replace a future Hall-of-Famer, but also keep Atlanta in line to contend for the AFC South. The addition of Kyle Pitts should help, but things are getting real for a veteran finally in the spotlight.
Even if the team adds another weapon (say, a N'Keal Harry via a trade from New England?), Gage should see another year of career numbers. In an offense that will run plenty of 12-man personnel, maybe that's not a terrible thing.
If 2020 was the start of something special, 2021 could be a year Gage finally proves to be the "it" guy for the future.
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