One of the biggest surprise cuts from the Falcons’ initital 53-man roster was UDFA WR Chris Rowland. All throughout camp, we’d heard how impressive he was as both a punt and kick returner, and he seemed like the most dangerous—and most experienced—option of the bunch. But at final cuts, it was veteran WR Brandon Powell who won the job heading into Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season.
With zero preseason games and a truncated offseason, it was always going to be difficult for rookie UDFAs to make the roster. So, perhaps we shouldn’t be too shocked about Rowland winding up on the practice squad to start the season. Thankfully, special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica provided some context to Atlanta’s decision to go with Powell over Rowland in a press conference on Thursday.
Ben Kotwica said it was a tough competition at punt returner between Brandon Powell and Chris Rowland. But Kotwica was impressed with Powell's ability to catch and secure the ball, which led the coaches to their decision.— Jason Butt (@JasonHButt) September 10, 2020
If we read between the lines on Jason Butt’s tweet, the reason the Falcons went with Powell over Rowland seems clear: fumble issues. That’s not entirely unexpected—rookie returners often struggle with adjusting to NFL punters and kickers. 2019 sixth-round pick Marcus Green had similar struggles in camp, which when combined with an injury led to his cut from the team prior to the season.
With Rowland sticking around on the practice squad, it does seem that the team still has faith that he can be the future at the position. In the meantime, Brandon Powell provides a reliable veteran presence who may offer a little more in the receiving game if needed. While punt returner seems to be decided, the kick returner position still seems up in the air heading into Week 1.
Ben Kotwica didn't want to reveal who will get the first look at kick returner against the Seahawks yet. Mentioned they'll choose between Brandon Powell, Olamide Zaccheaus and Ito Smith.— Jason Butt (@JasonHButt) September 10, 2020
While it appears that Powell is still in the mix at kick returner, several other players could see opportunities there. Former UDFA WR Olamide Zaccheaus was listed atop the first official depth chart, and he’s shown in limited action that he can be a dangerous weapon with the ball in his hands. Also competing is RB Ito Smith, who has handled the role in previous seasons with mixed success.
Kotwica seems to believe there could be competitive advantage in not revealing the kick returner prior to the game, so we’ll have to wait and see who’s out there on Sunday. What are your thoughts on the punt and kick return battle heading into Week 1?