Every team hopes that some of its day three draft selections will be diamonds in the rough who will eventually become Pro Bowlers, but that’s just not the case most of the time.
You can see it with the Falcons in the Thomas Dimitroff era: over the course of a full decade, Dimitroff has made 45 day three draft selections (not counting this draft of course), and out of all of them only Devonta Freeman has made the Pro Bowl. Those diamonds in the rough are there every year, but they’re incredibly difficult to uncover.
The quickest way for a day three selection to get on the field is to contribute on special teams. For the Falcons, the reinforcements that day three picks Ito Smith, Russell Gage and Foyesade Oluokun are promising to be couldn’t have come any quicker.
Most fans forget about special teams when it doesn’t prove to be a problem. That’s the point in the game when the average football fan is most likely to get a snack or go for a bathroom break in between possessions. However, special teams stick out like a sore thumb when it does prove to be a problem. Keith Armstrong’s unit, in particular, proved to be a major headache for the Falcons last season.
Atlanta’s 2017 Special Teams Struggles
Aside from Matt Bryant’s brilliant field goal kicking, the Falcons were a net negative in every other aspect of the kicking game.
The smart folks over at footballoutsiders.com use an algorithm to rank teams’ overall special teams performances each year. In simple terms, for kickoffs/punts, they assign a point value system of field position at the position of each kick, catch and return compared to league average (which is the 35-yard-line for kickoffs, while its variable for punts).
“For the return team, the rating is based on how many points the return is worth compared to average, based on the location of the catch and the distance the ball traveled in the air. Return teams are not judged on the distance of kicks, nor are they judged on kicks that cannot be returned.” (Football Outsiders). The algorithm is adjusted to take weather and environmental conditions into account as well.
To put a complicated process in simple terms, Football Outsiders ranked the Falcons 19th in the NFL in special teams with an S.T DVOA (Special Teams Defensive Value Over Average) of -1.2%. However, this statistic includes Atlanta’s stellar +6.4 FG/XP rating, which ranked top 10 in the NFL and was by far the highest such stat among teams with a negative S.T DVOA.
The Falcons had a -4.5 kickoff rating, a -3.6 kickoff return rating, a -1.0 punt rating and a -3.1 punt return rating. Not including Matt Bryant and the field goal unit, Atlanta had one of the five worst special teams units in the NFL last season.
The raw stats back this up as well. The Falcons gave up the fifth most overall kickoff return yards with 863, and gave up the most kickoff return yards on average with 26.15. Meanwhile, Matt Bosher ranked 14th in the NFL in net punt yardage (which pretty much takes into account both the punt and coverage of it) with 40.8, but was tied for last in the NFL in pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard-line with only 19 such punts.
In the return game meanwhile, Andre Roberts ranked bottom 10 (among eligible players) in the NFL in punt return yards on average with 7.44 and bottom 10 (among eligible players) in the NFL in kickoff return yards on average with 22.63, while also leading the NFL in total number of kickoff returns with 38.
Ito Smith - Atlanta somewhat surprisingly used their fourth-round draft selection on RB Ito Smith out of Southern Miss. Some analysts saw this as a reach, but Dimitroff and Dan Quinn liked him enough to use their first day three selection on the Golden Eagle.
Smith will be plugged into the third RB role which was occupied by Terron Ward for the past few seasons. The player in that role is expected to contribute on special teams, and Smith looks like he can make an impact in that phase of the game.
His 4.49 40 time and impressive 22 bench press reps (done at Southern Miss’ pro day) indicate that there’s speed and strength within Smith’s 5’9 and 200-pound frame. While you probably won’t hear his name much this season, Ito Smith should be an excellent special teams addition on kickoff and punt coverage with the tools he possesses.
Foyesade Oluokun - A safety in the Ivy League at Yale, Oluokun will be converted to linebacker at the next level. Don’t expect to see much of him on the field on defense, barring any injuries. Instead, Oluokun will be expected to make his mark under Keith Armstrong.
The Yale man didn’t get an invite to the combine, but he put up some stellar numbers, which eventually got him drafted, at his pro day. Carrying 230 pounds within a 6’1 frame, Oluokun ran a 4.48 40 time, jumped a 37 inch vertical and 10’3 inch broad jump, and had a 4.12 20-yard short shuttle time. Only Clemson LB and special teams aficionado Dorian O’Daniel had a better short shuttle time mark among players at the combine.
Oluokun looks like a great athlete, equipped with a high motor, who will end up being a significant upgrade on special teams from day one. He’ll provide some depth at LB, but he was brought in to help Keith Armstrong’s unit first and foremost.
Russell Gage - I saved Russell Gage for last because he’s someone who was exclusively brought in to be a special teams demon. With the Falcons drafting Calvin Ridley in the first round to go along with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy, there wasn’t much need for another WR, but Thomas Dimitroff ended up trading up for the LSU standout to give Armstrong a serious weapon in the kicking game.
Gage has the makings of a future pro bowler on special teams as a gunner thanks to his speed, instincts and toughness. His 4.42 40 time and 39 inch vertical at the combine revealed his tools, and he showcased his value on special teams with 17 career special teams tackles at LSU (including 11 last season). Look for him to compete for kick return duties as well.
Gage could potentially get a look as the long-term slot receiver because of his speed and playmaking ability with the ball in his hands, but it's his contributions on special teams which should keep him in the league for a long time.
The old saying with special teams is that you don’t notice its impact on the game unless it either sucks or is incredible, and last season Falcons fans noticed the special teams a lot more than they should’ve, for many negative reasons.
With Ito Smith, Foyesade Oluokun and Russell Gage being added to the Atlanta Falcons’ special teams unit, along with the addition of pro bowler Justin Bethel, there’s no excuse for Keith Armstrong’s unit to be as bad as it was last season. If it is, then it would be reasonable to expect some changes to be made within the coaching staff.