The Falcons have drastically changed the composition of their special teams unit over the past year or so. Longtime coordinator Keith Armstrong exited in favor of Ben Kotwica during the 2018 season coaching staff purge; Matt Bryant was dropped, picked back up, and dropped again; Matt Bosher was quietly not re-signed, and special teams stalwart Kemal Ishmael was not re-signed. The Falcons have signaled a desire to change things up, but you can’t really do that unless you re-stock the cupboard.
Atlanta’s made that a priority, even if we don’t know yet how everything’s going to work out. The Falcons special team unit was ranked just 23rd in the NFL by Football Outsiders last year, which was due to a variety of factors that included shaky kickoffs and kicking early in the year and the punter carousel that was running all year, so it was fair to argue improvements had to be made more or less across the board. Entering his second year, Kotwica figured to be able to mold the unit more to his liking, and we’re seeing that now.
Here are the notable additions
The most obvious, high-profile new addition for special teams is Syracuse punter Sterling Hofrichter, the team’s 7th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Matt Bosher was a controversial draft pick all the way back in 2011, but he spent most of nine seasons in Atlanta and finished second in punts and punt yardage and first in yards per punt in team history, so I expect the Falcons would consider that draft pick more than worth it. That’s why they were willing to dip in to the draft again for Hofrichter, a strong-legged punter who will be the immediate favorite to start, will compete to handle kickoffs, and may be an option on long field goals.
Thomas Dimitroff foreshadowed this selection with his glee over the strength of the specialists in this draft class, but the team was probably eager to avoid having to roll through multiple punters for a second straight season. If all goes well, Hofrichter will be an option for the next several seasons.
Atlanta went into the draft with Brandon Powell as their leading candidate to return kicks and punts, something that didn’t figure to stand. They didn’t come out of the draft with any obvious competition for him—Jaylinn Hawkins returned a handful of kicks in college, but that was it—but the undrafted free agent haul brought in those options.
The first name to know is Chris Rowland, a speedy receiver who averaged nearly 12 yards per punt return and 25 yards per kick return a year ago, and probably becomes the immediate favorite for the gig. He was joined by wide receiver Juwan Green (7 kick returns, 23.3 yards per return in 2019) and wide receiver Jalen McCleskey (34 career punt returns in college) as players with speed and experience at returner, while Powell has both collegiate and NFL experience handling kickoffs and punts as well. A signing could still be in the offing—the offseason isn’t over yet—but they’ve built up a solid little competition for the gig with Kenjon Barner departing.
Special teams coverage
The Falcons have prioritized this throughout the entire offseason. With Ishmael leaving, Atlanta’s signed former core special teamer LaRoy Reynolds, capable special teams additions Charles Harris, Josh Hawkins, Edmond Robinson, and Khari Lee, and drafted intriguing special teams options Mykal Walker and Jayllin Hawkins.
Reynolds, Walker and Hawkins are likely to be major additions in this regard. Reynolds brings solid tackling and steady experience to the role, while Walker and Hawkins bring athleticism, versatility, and acumen from college.
None of this was accidental or a happy side effect, as the Falcons have already specifically talked about the value these players bring to special teams. The only things they have yet to address are long snapper—where Josh Harris is a stalwart and does not need replacing—and kicker, where they’ve indicated they’d like competition for Younghoe Koo but have yet to acquire it. It’s possible they intend to roll with Koo and have Hofrichter handle long field goal tries, but we’re a long way away from finding out.
There will be more signings ahead, but the Falcons have looked at their team this offseason and concluded that while the offense just needed a starter or two (Matt Hennessy, Hayden Hurst) and the defense needed significant help, special teams improvements had to be a piece of the puzzle. Hopefully these selections and signings will bear fruit in 2020.