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Kenjon Barner was a bright spot for the Falcons against the Vikings

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In a disastrous Week 1 game we’d all rather forget, there was a surprising bright spot for the Falcons: returner Kenjon Barner.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

There weren’t a lot of positives to take away from the Falcons’ disastrous 28-12 defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings. Atlanta’s new look offensive line was porous and lost rookie RG Chris Lindstrom to a possibly significant foot injury. Matt Ryan threw one very bad interception and TE Luke Stocker quit on a route which led to another. The rushing attack was stuck in the mud all day.

On defense, Quinn’s unit looked hopelessly lost defending the outside zone. By the time it was all said and done, the Falcons had committed a whopping four turnovers, including a blocked punt, 2 INTs, and a fumble. The defense also failed to fall on any of the three turnovers they caused, which just added insult to injury on a day when nothing seemed to go Atlanta’s way.

There was one consistently good area of the team during Sunday’s game, however: punt returns. The Falcons surprised some fans with their decision to keep five RBs after veteran Kenjon Barner beat out rookie WR Marcus Green and UDFA WR Olamide Zaccheaus to win the returner job. Barner hadn’t returned many kicks for the Falcons during the preseason due to injury and the team’s desire to evaluate the young players, but he succeeded by looking consistently solid and not putting the ball on the turf.

On Sunday, Barner appeared to vindicate the Falcons’ decision to name him the returner. He looked the part of a savvy veteran, fielding four punts and generating positive return yardage on each of them. Barner showed off excellent field vision, instincts, and elusiveness as he navigated traffic to create good field position for Atlanta. The Falcons rarely took advantage of it, but Barner did his best to put the team in a good position to start their drives.

At the end of the game, Barner had 4 punt returns for 46 yards—which comes out to a very good 11.5 yard average. He wasn’t quite as electric on kickoff returns, with just 2 for 44 yards (22.0 average), but both were off well-placed kicks that were just short of the goal line. In a game where the Falcons struggled pretty much everywhere, Barner was one of the only consistently bright spots for the team.

We knew that improving the return position was a point of emphasis for new special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica this offseason. So far, the early returns are pretty positive with Kenjon Barner. I may have underrated his chances early in the offseason after the team seemed to bring in a ton of competition, but Barner has proven himself as a quality option thus far. At the very least, he’s a significant upgrade over Justin Hardy.

What are your thoughts on Kenjon Barner’s first regular season performance with the Falcons? Do you think he’s a significant upgrade at the return position over what Atlanta has had over the past few seasons?