After years of shaky performance, the Falcons’ special teams fared quite well in 2018. Matt Bosher had a good year, Matt Bryant and Giorgio Tavecchio were terrific, and coverage improved significantly over an awful 2017. In the end, that wasn’t enough to save Keith Armstrong’s job, especially after yet another year of poor performances in the return game.
That leaves special teams as unsettled as it has been in many, many years. No longer is Armstrong’s philosophy guiding things with new coach Ben Kotwica taking over as special teams coordinator, which means things we’ve taken for granted over the years could change suddenly. Kotwica is a virtual lock to add one or two of his guys if he can, meaning longtime special teamers like Kemal Ishmael may or may not return. Then there’s the situation at kicker, where Matt Bryant is as dependable as ever but faces a legitimate threat to his job for the first time in recent memory from Giorgio Tavecchio.
How will things shake out? Let’s look.
The team has to weigh whether they want to bring back their own free agents, first and foremost. Justin Bethel was just as good as you’d expect him to be, given his outsized reputation, but he’s a noted disaster in coverage and may not be back just to contribute on teams. Kemal Ishmael is a more reliable defender who can play linebacker or safety and has been a core contributor on teams since he arrived as a seventh round pick way back in 2013, but he’s not a lock to return either.
If the Falcons are planning to replace them, keep an eye on guys Kotwica has recently coached. Linebacker Zach Vigil is an unrestricted free agent and spent two seasons working with Kotwica in Washington, leading all players in special teams snaps in 2017 and grading out as Pro Football Focus’s fourth-best tackler on the team that season. The Falcons could very well elect to replace Ishmael (or somebody like Bruce Carter, if they’re not drafting a linebacker) with Vigil, who has shown his reliability and would be very comfortable with what Kotwica will want to do.
Ultimately, the Falcons are unlikely to make special teams the outsized priority it was heading into 2018, when they signed Bethel and traded for Jordan Richards, and will likely roll on with promising young players like Eric Saubert, Russell Gage, and Sharrod Neasman. The only curveball would come if the Falcons finally decided they were tired of mucking about at returner and went hard after a proven specialist like Cordarelle Patterson, but I’d expect Atlanta to stick to bringing in a couple of useful players Kotwica is comfortable with and calling it at that.
This is where you may see some action for special teams, but no one’s going to be drafted primarily to contribute on that side of the ball until very late, if at all. It is, it goes without saying, entirely too early in the year to be considering who the Falcons might draft for their special teams value, so we’ll punt this one until a bit later in the year. Just know it’s a possibility.
The preferred outcome
The Falcons free up enough money to make a run at Patterson, who could help set the offense up with greatly improved field position due to his excellence as a returner. They bring back Matt Bryant for another year, given his ongoing reliability as a kicking option. Then they bring back Ishmael, add someone like Vigil, and roll with what they have beyond that, giving them a capable, strong special teams unit that will hopefully thrive under Kotwica.
The likely outcome
I’ve wrestled with this one a lot. The Falcons keeping Tavecchio around this long would seem to indicate that they are going to seriously weigh keeping him instead of Bryant, especially after Bryant dealt with injury last year. On one hand, there’s no guaranteed money for Tavecchio, making it easy for the Falcons to cut ties with him if they want to. On the other hand, he will be an extremely cheap option in 2019 and will be a restricted free agent in 2020, giving the Falcons the ability to cut costs at kicker pretty sharply for two seasons if they roll with him instead of Bryant.
Ultimately, though, I think Bryant’s experience and continued excellence to win the day, and for the team to cut Tavecchio in the late summer and hand the job to Bryant. Obviously if Bryant comes to camp looking diminished or gets hurt, that calculus changes, but I doubt the former will happen at the very least.
That will leave the Falcons with Bryant and Bosher as specialists, Josh Harris back and healthy as the long snapper, and the returner gig becoming an open battle between Marvin Hall, Ito Smith, and perhaps Isaiah Oliver and a new addition. I don’t think they’ll actually consider investing huge dollars in a returner, even one as good as Patterson. Expect them to fill out the roster with the addition of guys like Vigil that Kotwica is comfortable with.