It’s fair to say that the return game is one of Atlanta’s bigger question marks heading into 2018, even though the return game is significantly less vital than it used to be.
Eric Weems and Andre Roberts both did good things during their times as returners for the Falcons, but neither exactly blew fans away with their respective abilities. Weems had an excellent 2015 with 26.9 yards per kick return and 11.6 yards per punt return and followed that up with a less inspiring 23.0 Y/PKR and 11.4 Y/PPR in 2016, but his decision-making was the subject of much scrutiny. Roberts was demonstrably worse, however, as he managed 22.6 yards per kick return and just 7.4 yards per punt return, albeit with some weak blocking and excruciating penalties proving costly for him. In both instances, it was frustrating to see a team spend money on veteran returners who struggled to make big things happen, though infinitely more so with Roberts.
This year, that option doesn’t seem to be on the table. The Falcons are bringing five or six players into the mix who are either rookies, young players without regular season return experience, or veterans who also fit that bill. One or two of Russell Gage, Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall, Reggie Davis, Ito Smith, and whoever else actually turns out to be contending for the kick and punt returner gigs should be able to lock it down, and those players will secure their roster spots at their respective position(s) by doing so.
The question is, will whoever takes the job actually be any good? I hate to disrespect Roberts, but I can’t help but feel that any of the guys in this competition can make better decision with the football than him, and probably turn in at least a comparable numbers. The team’s focus on adding and improving to their special teams unit should translate into better blocking, one hopes, so it’ll be up to the returner(s) to capitalize.
Unfortunately, the answer to this question does depend on who wins, and this competition seems relatively wide open. That makes it difficult to deliver a sound verdict this early, but I will say that I have all the confidence in the world that whoever the Falcons choose will be no worse than what they did a year ago, and hopefully better. Someone like Hall, Davis or Smith, who should always pay their way with a role on offense, would be ideal.