The draft is over, and now it’s time to look at the state of the roster while we wait for training camp, preseason, and the epic cutdown to 53 players. There is much to discuss, and this year we’re going to reverse our typical order and start with special teams, not quarterback.
The changes on special teams have been myriad and drastic. The Falcons had employed Keith Armstrong as their coordinator here since 2008, and he had presided over some truly terrific units and (of late) some up-and-down ones. He’s replaced by Ben Kotwica, most recently Washington’s special teams coordinator, who will try to breathe some life into what had become a pretty moribund return game.
The biggest change of all, though, is the changeover from Matt Bryant to Giorgio Tavecchio at kicker. Tavecchio did well in limited looks last year, but Bryant is Bryant, the best kicker in team history, the clutch holder of records, and the team’s stalwart leg since partway through the 2009 season. It’s a huge change that requires real faith in the new guy.
From there, too, there are changes large and small. Marvin Hall is gone and Justin Hardy is unlikely to repeat as a returner, giving a new group of players a chance. One gunner spot is open with Justin Bethel not re-signing, which also creates new opportunities. About the only truly familiar faces in this group are top special teamer Kemal Ishmael and punter Matt Bosher, which means we have a ton to talk about.
So, how’s the group look as a whole?
Tavecchio replaces Bryant, which is going to make just about everyone nervous for a bit. Tavecchio was nails during a limited run in 2018, hitting all five of his field goals and all eight of his extra point chances and doing so with aplomb. The year before, however, Tavecchio hit just 16 of 21 field goals, and the Raiders elected to part ways with him as a result.
The question with Tavecchio is not ability so much as consistency. Kicking indoors appears to agree with him and he’s got the advantage of being significantly younger than Matt Bryant, whose injury history in recent years was relatively minor in terms of missed time but apparently was looming large for the Falcons and for other teams, given that the slam dunk best kicker on the market hasn’t gotten a new gig yet. Atlanta saved money and will have Tavecchio under contract cheaply for the next two seasons if all goes well, but to suggest that Tavecchio doesn’t have Bryant’s track record is to undersell it. Tavecchio merely needs to be good, but his every kick is going to be scrutinized, and we’ll have to have hope he’s up to the task.
It’s Matt Bosher! The hard-hitting fan favorite absolutely wrecked Kenjon Barner last year, the latest in a line of jarring special teams tackles that make it impossible to root against the man. Bosher will be entering his ninth season as the team’s punter and has been consistently solid throughout his run, but I did wonder idly this offseason whether the team might look to replace him after they also moved on from Matt Bryant.
The chief reason for that concerns trend lines. Punters can punt until they’re 40 if all goes well, and Bosher is just now entering his age 32 season. He is coming off a 45.5 yards per punt average year that improved on 2017, but his last two seasons have offered his lowest averages since his 2011 rookie season. On top of that, Bosher’s long a year ago was 57 yards, and he’s never gone through an entire season without booting one at least 59 yards before now. He also had two punts blocked a year ago, something that’s certainly a bit fluky. The Falcons likely (correctly) assumed Bosher is still a terrific player and worth keeping around, but he’s entering the final year of his deal and likely needs to bank a good year to get another deal. For many, many reasons, let’s hope he does so.
The Falcons don’t have a ready-made solution here, but they have promising candidates. Rookie Marcus Green has fantastic wheels and college experience, new addition Tony Brooks-Jones also was an effective returner at Oregon, and Justin Hardy got some valuable experience and figures to be in the mix this year. I’m betting on Green to win the gig, but hey, they’ve got options.
The Falcons have Russell Gage as one of their gunners, and his speed and acumen make him a likely long-term solve there. The other spot is up for grabs with Justin Bethel headed elsewhere, but the Falcons do generally have a pretty strong group of special teamers at the very least, including Kemal Ishmael, Duke Riley, and Eric Saubert. We’ll see what Ben Kotwica wants to do with those guys.
I have questions, but ones that I hope will be assuaged as the summer goes on. It’s difficult to be anything but nervous about replacing a legend like Matt Bryant with a relative unknown, but Tavecchio’s audition went really well a year ago and he’s clearly talented. Bosher’s last couple of seasons have been more uneven than usual, but again, his track record suggests he’ll be perfectly fine. Adding a new coordinator, a new returner, and new players to the unit is a recipe for some question marks, but honestly the only one that really concerns me is the potential downgrade from Bryant.
With any luck, this’ll be a solid year for special teams, but it’s impossible to know for sure at this juncture of the offseason. Allow me my nervousness, if you will.