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Falcons training camp: The battle for returner pits a savvy veteran against a young upstart

Andre Roberts versus Devin Fuller for this one.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have had a lot of good returners over the years, but judging from the comments here and my mentions elsewhere, fans were ready to move on from gifted special teamer and get a new returner. Weems’ contributions were valuable, but in the return department, he wasn’t quite Devin Hester or Deion Sanders.

The next guy won’t be, either. While there are several names being bandied about right now, the battle for the returner gig is likely to come down to a recently-signed veteran and a young draft pick who saw his 2016 chances ruined by injury.

Let’s break it down.

The Participants

Andre Roberts: 40 career starts, third round pick in 2010

Devin Fuller: 0 career starts, seventh round pick in 2016

Brian Hill: 0 career starts, fifth round pick in 2017

Other guys, I guess!

Hill, Taylor Gabriel, and Justin Hardy have been mentioned as possibilities here, but I’ll believe those when I see them. Gabriel is too valuable on offense, Hill is a rookie who ESPN doesn’t view as a lock to make the team, and Hardy is plenty sure-handed but figures to have a larger role on offense than Roberts or Fuller.

Roberts is a steady veteran receiver who has been playing since 2010, has 40 career starts and many more games played, and has plenty of experience as a returner. You don’t have to think very hard about why the Falcons signed him after they moved on from Eric Weems.

The last man in the competition, and the most genuine competitor for Roberts, is Devin Fuller. The 2016 seventh rounder looked really good in training camp and early preseason before he suffered an injury that cost him the year, putting him a year behind on his seemingly inevitable charge for the returner job. He’s much more athletic at this stage of his career than Roberts and could surprise, but the mere fact that Roberts is here and is getting paid decent money tells you Fuller’s the underdog. He’s not ready to admit that, naturally.

The Timeline

Like every other battle mentioned here, this one isn’t going to be officially decided until the end of preseason. This one should be nominally wrapped up before then, though, as I fully anticipate Roberts will be treated like the favorite. Fuller’s best shot comes in the form of the playing time he’s likely to get, given that Roberts is a veteran and likely won’t see the field much before the regular season.

The Outcome

A lot of people are giving Devin Fuller a chance in this battle, but as much as I’d like to see that, I don’t. I’m saying that as someone who would genuinely prefer that Fuller, a young, cheap, potentially long-term option who has some upside as receiver, wins the gig.

The team signed Andre Roberts because they want the kind of steady, reliable returner that you can count on to pick up decent returns and hold on to the football. Roberts is also still a decent possession receiver at this stage of the game, and considering he’ll be no better than the team’s fifth receiver, that’s all they really need.

Fuller’s best bet might be holding on as the sixth receiver or spending a year on the practice squad and biding his time, as Roberts is only on a one year deal and both Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy could conceivably be out of town next year. This is Roberts’ job to lose, but Fuller may well have it a year from now, if he can impress this summer.