The Falcons have not had a productive return game in years, which is partly a function of shifting rules on kickoffs and partly a result of having neither the personnel nor the will to build one. The last time Atlanta had over 270 yards in a season from a punt returner was 2016 and the last time they cleared 800 yards from a kick returner was 2017, which are arbitrary numbers but also slot neatly in the top 20 such seasons in franchise history. That’s part of a larger leaguewide trend that has been accelerating in recent years, as the last time a single player had 40 kick returns in a season was in 2018. Before 2015, your league leader often had more than 50.
Atlanta has effectively made a conscious decision to de-prioritize returns. Per a study by Commute Sports last October, since 2018 only three other teams have an average starting position on kickoffs that’s lower than Atlanta’s, though they’re surprisingly high on the list of teams in terms of average starting field position on punts, which given their fairly lackluster number of actual returns and return performance in recent years likely means they’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of lackluster punts.
The team’s relentless dedication to a boring, mediocre return game has been something to watch. In 2017, Andre Roberts was coming off a season where he managed two punt return touchdowns and was a legitimately dynamic option, and with the Falcons he had an extremely forgettable year. Since then, he’s gone on to be one of the best returners in football each and every year, and Justin Hardy, Brandon Powell, and others haven’t fared well trying to take over for him, either.
That may change a bit in 2021. New special teams coordinator Marquice Williams was with the Lions the past two seasons as an assistant special teams coach, and while he didn’t have Brandon Powell fielding kicks and punts during that time, he did have a productive returner in Jamal Agnew and the Lions had a better average starting field position than the Falcons in 2020. Williams, who has vowed “mean and clean” play on special teams in 2021, will probably look to at least try to put a better return game on the field and may call upon Brandon Powell to do it, given his praise for the former Lion.
“I love the way he plays the game,” Williams said. “He’s a fearless runner. He has great short-area quickness. I loved the mindset that he plays with.”
With that new philosophy and a new coaching staff comes the potential for a battle that won’t be effectively decided before it begins. Look for Chris Rowland, potentially Powell (who is a restricted free agent), and a mix of new additions and players with existing college returner experience like Tyler Hall and Olamide Zaccheaus to mix in. The return game is not going to be the major reason for this team’s success now or at any point in the immediate future, but it would be nice if it could make a positive difference at times, too.