Matt Nein / @mnein9
The emergence of Russell Gage has been one of the more intriguing headlines for the 2020 season. The question is, is it a fluke or is he a real thing?
Towards the end of the 2019 season, Gage became one of Matt Ryan's primary targets. From week 10 on, Gage was 2nd in targets, 2nd in receptions, 3rd in yards, and tied for 3rd in TDs (Falcons team finishes). Gage finished 2019 as the WR71 on the season.
Jumping ahead to this year, Gage is 2nd on the team in targets, 2nd in receptions, 2nd in TDs, and on a sour note he also leads the team in drops.
Gage is 8th in the NFL in WR targets through 2 weeks.
So what does all this tell me?
In 2019 the Falcons gave up the 10th most points and the 13th most total yards. So far through 2 weeks in 2020, the Falcons have given up the 2nd most points and 4th most total yards. The Falcons defense is not good. Teams with a bad defense typically are in shootouts or negative game scripts resulting in more pass plays being called. (RE: The Seahawks and Cowboys games were both shootouts.)
The poor defensive performance the Falcons have shown over the last 18 games has directly benefitted Russell Gage's success.
In 2018, Gage's rookie year, the Falcons defense gave up the 8th most total yards and 4th most points. Gage was only able to amass 10 targets for 6 receptions and 63 yards (he did play in 15 games). However, Gage was the WR4 on his team that year playing behind Ridley and Sanu. Ridley was the WR3 that year posting a stat line of 92 targets for 64 receptions and 821 yards with 10TDs which was good for the WR18 finish on the year.
Calvin Ridley is a topic for another day but his finishes are inflated by the unsustainable number of TDs he caught that year and currently in 2020.
In 2019, Austin Hooper was the 'WR3' for the Falcons and finished with 97 targets for 75 receptions with 787 yards and 6TDs. Gage was the WR4 on the year, but from week 10 on he was the WR3 for the Falcons. He finished with 74 targets for 49 receptions with 446 yards and 1TD. 90%+ of Gage's production came from week 10 on last year.
Now in 2020, Gage in the WR3 for the Falcons. The WR3 for the Falcons over the last 2 years has averaged 95.4 targets, 69.5 receptions, 804 yards, and 8TDs (again, the TDs are inflated due to Ridleys high count so we need to temper expectations).
Russell Gage *could* finish as a WR2 this year dependent on how significant Julio's hamstring injury is. The Falcons should be throwing a ton this year and if you're a contending team, Gage is an excellent depth piece. However, his long term sustainability scares me. Russell Gage has finished worse the James Washington in both of their first two seasons. Andrew recently wrote an article about what happens to WRs who don't finish in the top 50 either of their first 2 seasons.
Best case scenario, Gage's ceiling is a WR3 finish this year and maybe one other year. If Gage does finish better than a WR3 and has consistent top finishes moving forward, he will be the outlier of outliers.
Worst case scenario, Gage fades off into the sunset and is never heard from again.
Both of these results are on the extreme ends so the reality probably lies somewhere in-between.