Kenjon Barner is not going to be the Falcons’ #2 running back, not with Ito Smith turning in a strong rookie season and possessing more talent and upside. At best, Barner will settle in as the team’s #3, and if they keep four backs Brian Hill’s power might vault him past the new signing in the end.
That doesn’t mean that Barner doesn’t have value, though. He’s the speediest back on the team and should get some looks just based off of that, and perhaps more importantly given his place on the running back pecking order, he could be the team’s returner.
It would be no small thing for the Falcons to go into the year with that decided, because their curious lack of urgency last year led directly to Justin Hardy getting far too many bites at the apple. Hardy remains an underrated receiver and greatly underrated blocker and I’d welcome him back, but his results as a punt returner were not superb. Marvin Hall fared better on kick returns, but the Falcons have elected to let him walk, which leaves Barner as the early favorite to be Ben Kotwica’s first returner with the Falcons.
It helps that Barner has experience returning both kicks and punts, with an average of 24.4 yards on kick returns and 7.8 yards on punt returns. Here’s what the team averaged on both in recent years:
2018: 22.2 yards per KR, 7.0 yards per PR
2017: 22.3 yards per KR, 7.4 yards per PR
2016: 21.0 yards per KR, 11.4 yards per PR
2015: 25.7 yards per KR, 9.4 yards per PR
This is not an end-all, be-all metric, but the last time the Falcons were better than Barner’s career average on kick returns, Eric Weems and Devin Hester were kicking around Atlanta. All of which is to say that Barner’s speed and experience give him a compelling leg up on the competition for these gigs, and unless the Falcons are planning to draft a young receiver or defensive back with a skill set that makes them worth a long look here, Barner should have the job and will likely do just fine with it.
With Giorgio Tavecchio set to be the team’s kicker, Matt Bosher returning as the punter, a healthy Josh Harris as the long snapper, Russell Gage as one of the team’s gunners, and plenty of solid contributors on special teams, the Falcons just need to replace Justin Bethel at gunner and get their rookie class up to speed and they should be solid on special teams again in 2019. They have much bigger fish to fry than that, but it’s still reassuring to think there’s a plan here, and that Barner should be part of it.