With a couple of exceptions, the Falcons didn’t specifically head into the 2018 NFL Draft with the intent of solving their special teams woes. They did, however, manage to draft players who could solve some of the persistent special teams issues that plagued them in 2017, which is at worst a nice bonus.
Start with Calvin Ridley, the newest wide receiver and a legitimate (if ultimately unlikely) option at returner. Then move into Isaiah Oliver, a tall, physical cornerback who also might be a returner option, albeit perhaps one of last resort, and someone who may be able to take some special teams away from Robert Alford. Then there’s fourth rounder Ito Smith, a lightning-fast back who almost certainly will mix in at returner, as well.
And then, of course, there are the two guys the Falcons actually drafted to help out on special teams, both in the sixth round. Russell Gage looks like an option at gunner alongside Justin Bethel, and the team’s open dissatisfaction with their gunner options a year ago is evident in both the Bethel signing and the Gage pick. Gage may well impress enough to push his way into a role on offense down the line, but chiefly he was drafted to help out on special teams. Ditto Foye Oluokun, a deeply intriguing linebacker/safety option who figures to get his start in special teams coverage.
The net result of all these picks is likely a new kick returner and a new punt returner (possibly the same person), a new gunner, and at least one helpful soul for a special teams unit Keith Armstrong could not possibly have been satisfied with a year ago. The Falcons got better on offense and defense these last few days, which will be key in 2018, but improvements to a lackluster special teams unit are likely to make a big difference in the field position battle. I don’t think the team’s focus there is a coincidence.