When the Falcons declined to keep Eric Weems around heading into 2017 and instead signed veteran return Andre Roberts, the decision was met with more or less universal acclaim. Many fans were tired of Weems and his seemingly poor decision-making coming on returns, and while I thought the criticisms of Weems were a bit overblown, Roberts had long been a good returner. It was a sensible enough signing.
After the 2017 season, though, it would not be surprised if a Roberts re-signing was met with vitriol from fans. What a difference a year makes.
While Roberts was the NFL’s Salute to Service award winner and led the league in kickoff return yardage, his per return numbers were worse than Weems’ in 2016. In the case of punt returns, in particular, Roberts managed 7.4 yards per return against Weems’ 11.4 in 2016. Things were close on the kick return side of things, with Roberst also handling far more returns, but Weems was at 23 versus Roberts’ 22.6 last year. It’s safe to say the team’s returns were, by and large, worse. It just wasn’t all his fault.
Here’s the case for and against retaining Roberts, which has as much to do with the team’s special teams as Roberts himself.
Roberts was undeniably victimized by a generally poor year from the Falcons on special teams. He had multiple quality returns called back due to penalty, had returns from the 5 or 10 yard line that he had to take ruined by awful blocking, and just generally fared far worse than he would have had Atlanta done a better job in front of him. That made his numbers and his week-to-week production look worse than they might have been.
Roberts had actually never fared so poorly on kick returns before at any other stop, except in seasons where he had just one or two returns, though his average on punt returns is rarely better than it was in 2017. That means re-signing him for the veteran minimum probably gets you slightly better results in 2018, assuming the Falcons can improve their special teams even slightly. He’d be a low-risk, low-cost re-signing.
Basically everything else. Roberts offered next to nothing as a wide receiver, drawing four targets and making just one catch for 12 yards. The Falcons have Taylor Gabriel, Roberts and Nick Williams looming as free agents this offseason, and Roberts would take up a spot at the position that could go to a far more productive player. Atlanta’s gotta stop skating by with lousy depth at the position.
You can let him off the hook to a certain extent on returns because of how the Falcons played around him, but he knew full well how poor his blocking was and still regularly took the ball out of the end zone rather than downing it for an automatic 25 yards. That led to far too many Falcons drive starting inside the 20, which led to too many drives that fizzled out without scoring. You can’t overstate how large Roberts’ role was in that, unfortunately.
To sum it up, Roberts is 30 years old, didn’t factor in as a receiver, and was overall not an upgrade on Eric Weems as a returner. I can’t think of a single compelling reason to re-sign him, outside of betting on the Falcons’ special teams to improve so drastically that it lifts his performance up with them.
The Verdict: No
I was as bullish on the Roberts signing as anybody, but there’s no need for the Falcons to go back to this well after they saw what he put on tape in 2017. They’re better off having a sure-handed Justin Hardy field kickoffs if they just want a reliable player who (hopefully) will make good decisions, or handing the reins over to Taylor Gabriel (if he’s re-signed) or even Tevin Coleman if they want game-breaking speed on their returns. Their offensive improvement will hinge on a lot of factors, but having better starting field position will certainly be one of them, and Roberts was not helpful in that regard last season.
I’ll wish Roberts well wherever he lands, but I can’t see him back in Atlanta.