One of the most underestimated, and sometimes ignored roles in football is the role of a return specialist. The battle of field position can be the difference of adding three points from a field goal or simply punting the ball away to try for points on another drive, even if the rules have changed to make returners a little less impactful.
In 2019, the Atlanta Falcons had a kick return ace in running back Kenjon Barner. Barner was one of the several Falcons players who departed the team earlier this offseason, and he’s since landed with the Baltimore Ravens. Barner’s time in Atlanta was largely quality, and he even netted a Pro Bowl alternate selection to his resume.
Now we fast-forward to the present where the Falcons search for their new kick return specialist. There’s plenty of names that the team has no doubt looked at within, and apparently two players are currently battling for the return job — Brandon Powell and Chris Rowland.
Brandon Powell and Chris Rowland are the two players competing for the returner job. #Falcons— Kelsey Conway (@FalconsKelsey) August 20, 2020
Powell spent the 2018 season with the Detroit Lions before being signed to the Falcons’ practice squad prior to the start of the 2019 regular season. While at the University of Florida, Powell played both running back and wide receiver and totaled 33 kick returns for 671 yards and 17 punt returns for 61 yards, no touchdowns for either.
Following the 2020 NFL Draft, the Falcons quickly signed undrafted rookie wide receiver Chris Rowland out of Tennessee State. Rowland received the largest signing bonus of the UDFA’s the Falcons brought in this offseason, so you know the team is high on him. He also brings something to the passing game, as Rowland broke Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice’s HBCU receptions record for a single season in 2019, reeling in 104 receptions for 1,437 yards and 8 touchdowns.
In April, we were told that special teams coach Ben Kotwica saw Chris Rowland, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Brandon Powell as the leaders for the return job. That’s apparently changed, as Zaccheaus’ name has obviously been dropped from the position battle. That could mean he’s locked in as the 5th receiver and will have other roles or it could be a bad sign for his chances of snagging a job.
The battle itself will strictly take place in camp, on the practice field, as there are no preseason games being played this season due to the pandemic. Considering the Falcons are likely to keep more wide receivers than normal, I think it’s Rowland’s job to lose. He may only be 5’8 but he’s extremely fast and a reliable pass catcher with a bright future.