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Falcons post-draft roster preview: Special teams edition

Atlanta has the makings of a quality special teams unit in 2021.

Denver Broncos v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With free agency over and the draft in the books, there’s no time like the present to take another look at a nearly full 90 man roster. Much will change between now and September, including likely additions to the roster once the Falcons free up cap space, and we’ll have an opportunity to take stock of the final group before the season. At the big, catch-all position group we’re about to review, I don’t expect the makeup of things to change all that much between now and the season, though.

I’ve been trying hard to temper my expectations for the Falcons this offseason, knowing full well that disaster tends to follow this team around even when they look good on paper. It’s hard not to get excited about special teams, where new coordinator Marquice Williams brings a lot of energy and fine work from Detroit, and the talent on hand is considerable, especially when it comes to the kicker and the returner spots. We’ll kick off our roster preview series with a look at some of the likely key players on special teams.

Kicker

Younghoe Koo

2020 Stats: 37 of 39 field goal attempts, 33 of 36 extra point attempts, 66 kickoffs, 63.0 yards per kickoff, 42.4% touchback percentage


The Falcons have now been brilliantly lucky three consecutive times. The first was way back in 2008, when they picked up an aging Jason Elam and saw him convert nearly 94% of his field goal attempts that year, aiding the Falcons’ rapid return to relevance. The second was in 2009, when Elam faded and the Falcons scooped up Matt Bryant, who would go on to be the best kicker in franchise history and hold down the position for a decade. The third was when the Falcons, after some missteps with Giorgio Tavecchio and re-signing Bryant, somehow wound up with Younghoe Koo.

There are young kickers in this league who don’t get their fair shake, and Koo was certainly one of them before joining Atlanta. After last year, he’ll probably never struggle for work again, as he put together one of the best seasons in team history and got a Pro Bowl nod for it. The only major hole in Koo’s game heading into 2020 was the question of whether he could hit 50+ yard field goals consistently, a question he put to bed by nailing all 8 of his attempts last season.

Heading into 2021, Koo should hopefully have less of a heavy workload in terms of field goal tries, assuming the red zone offense makes even modest strides. Kicker efficacy varies from year-to-year, but Koo’s 2019 stint was strong enough to think he’ll be a very good one again this season, and his superlative onside kick attempts for the Falcons will probably come into play for a team with an aggressive offense and what’s likely to be a so-so defense. He will not, in all likelihood, face even cursory competition for the job.

Punters

Sterling Hofrichter

2020 Stats: 56 punts, 2,381 yards, 42.5 yards per punt, 19 fair catches, 17 punts inside the 20, 2 touchbacks, 26 returns against for 142 yards; 22 kickoffs, 62.9 yards per kickoff, 72.7% touchback percentage


Last year, Hofrichter finished 34th in the NFL in yards per punt and 23rd in net yards per punt, which suggests he had an awful season when he was basically fine, especially for a rookie. Teams did very little damage on returns against him, he was top 12 in terms of fair catches, and he only punted one ball 20 yards out of bounds, so he had that going for him. Atlanta’s very first signing under Terry Fontenot was a punter, though, so clearly the Falcons will look to at least give him competition.

Hofrichter’s ability drew a lot of praise pre-draft and ultimately when he was drafted, but we only saw his much-praised hangtime and booming leg intermittently in 2020. Younghoe Koo praised his ability as a holder, though, and he was a capable fill-in on kickoffs when it was required. Given his potential and the fact that not all rookie punters hit the ground running—we all remember Matt Bosher’s 2011—I’d still put him as the favorite for the job heading into 2021. He just shouldn’t be expected to be handed the job.

Dom Maggio

It was amusing as hell that the start of Atlanta’s budget offseason was the signing of a punter, which indicated just how budget-minded the team would figure to be.It makes sense if you’re not attached to the incumbent, though, and that’s what this signing tells us.

Maggio is known for a strong leg and had a productive career at Wake Forest, finishing his senior season with a 46.8 yards per punt average. That got him picked up by the Ravens last offseason, but he didn’t stick, ultimately going the rest of the 2020 season without playing anywhere. With former Ravens executive Dwaune Jones joining the Falcons, it’s fair to assume that Maggio caught his eye previously and he’d like to give him another shot.

Maggio was a willing special teams tackler at Wake Forest and definitely was a player who was rounding into form in his final college season, meaning his best punting days could very well be ahead of him. Hofrichter would seem to the more versatile player—he handled field goals and extra points multiple times in college and already showed he’s solid on kickoffs in the NFL in 2020—but if Maggio is simply the superior punter, I think a new staff with zero ties to the incumbent will likely choose him.

Long snapper

Josh Harris

To be a long snapper for any length of time, you have to be consistent and make very few mistakes. Harris fits the bill, chipping in the occasional special teams tackle and long snapping at a consistently high level, helping Matt Bryant, Koo, Matt Bosher and Hofrichter to be successful. He’ll be a Falcon as long as that continues.

Returners

Cordarrelle Patterson

The days of competition are over here, because Patterson will be the team’s kick returner. He’s a Hall of Fame-caliber talent at that one specific thing, as he’s 13th all-time in kick return yardage, 2nd in average yards per return behind Gale Sayers, and tied with Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington for the most kick return touchdowns in NFL history. He can further burnish that reputation in Atlanta, where he’ll have the kick returner job.

He isn’t showing signs of slowing down significantly, as he led the NFL in every category except yards per return in 2020, where he was 2nd. He still is fast and dangerous with the ball in his hands on returns and a constant threat to break one for a score, and he has a kick return touchdown each of the past three seasons. Patterson will have a role on offense as a sometimes pass catching back, sometimes receiver, but this is why the Falcons signed him, and he gives them their most lethal returner since Devin Hester.

Avery Williams

Williams is not guaranteed to win this job, but I’m putting him down as a strong favorite today. That’s simply because nobody else on the team has the combination of proven production and tremendous athleticism he’s going to bring to the competition.

Consider this: Williams ranked 3rd in FBS football last year in terms of yards per return, and he took two of his 15 returns to the house. He was a plenty productive kick returner in college, but punt returns are where he really shone, averaging nearly 12 yards a return and scoring 6 touchdowns on 83 tries. He’s fast, yes, but this return against San Jose State is a great example of how his toughness and agility put him in a position to use that speed in the open field in the first place. If he doesn’t win the job in 2021, I think he’ll have it before long.

Williams figures to compete strongly for one of the gunner roles on special teams, as he also excelled there at Boise State, and should have an inside track to two prominent roles.

Overall

There will be competition for the punter job, the punt returner job, and of course Marquice Williams will need to figure out his larger coverage units, though you’d expect Avery Williams to have an inside track to one of the gunner gigs after the team clearly drafted him with special teams firmly in mind.

All that aside, this has the makings of a very good group. Patterson is a big-time upgrade on Atlanta’s options in recent years, Williams’ college production and athletic ability suggest he could be a lethal punt returner, and Koo will be looking to prove he can be one of the best kickers in football over the long haul. So long as whoever wins wins the Hofrichter/Maggio battle is at least solid, special teams should be a strength for a team that needs as many strengths as it can get.