FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was midway through the 2019 season, Russell Gage’s second in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, when the advice from Julio Jones began making sense. Before that, Gage had a reception here or there, but he primarily played special teams.
Then Gage got into the rotation, became part of the Falcons’ receiving corps, and Jones had a simple takeaway that has stuck since.
“That was his biggest thing,” Gage said. “Speed, speed off the ball, running. A lot of guys get too caught up in thinking and thinking into their routes. Just understand that even if you make a mistake, make it full speed.
“Run. That’s a receiver’s biggest asset is his speed. So whatever it is, you need to display it.”
For three seasons, Gage watched Jones -- sometimes from the sideline, sometimes on the field playing with him. Then, on Sunday, Jones was traded to Tennessee. Calvin Ridley became the team’s likely No. 1 receiver.
As for Gage, 25, his role just became a whole lot bigger. He’s not being asked to replace a future Hall of Famer -- the Falcons have Ridley and drafted tight end Kyle Pitts in the first round -- but he’ll be looked at as a player who can do more than primarily play in the slot, where he was when the Falcons had a fully healthy receiving group a year ago.
“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,” Falcons first-year coach Arthur Smith said. “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.”
That should mean continued slot work and playing some outside, where he’ll potentially be the beneficiary of solo coverage if teams focus too heavily on Ridley and Pitts.
The last time Gage stepped into a new role, against the Seahawks and then the Saints in 2019, he said he was thinking too much and didn’t play instinctively. It’s why after the New Orleans game, Jones pulled him aside and gave him that advice.
“After the Saints game, I kind of understood that,” Gage said. “I cleared my mind more and just ran, came off the ball as fast as I can. And whatever happens, happens.
“That’s the best way to play. It’s the best way to play mistake-free as well.”
When Jones missed seven games last season, Gage showed promise. He needed to do more and responded. He started to develop more of an on-field rapport with veteran quarterback Matt Ryan and finished with the best season of his career -- 109 targets, 72 catches, 786 yards and four touchdowns, including three in the final five games.
Now, in a new offense, he’s starting to understand what Smith wants, too.
“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. “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.”
Some of Gage's progress last season was due to that growing comfort. Some of it was Ridley’s breakout and, when Jones was on the field, Julio garnering attention. But it also had to do with the advice Jones gave Gage -- the advice that’ll stick with him as he slides into a starting role.