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Key special teams position battles as we head into mandatory minicamp

Punter and punt returner are the two specialist battles to watch.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we mulled over some of the most interesting position battles on the roster ahead of minicamp for the Falcons offense, and it was a pretty extensive list. Today we’ll talk special teams, where the list is much shorter.

There will be plenty of jockeying for roles on special teams under new coordiantor Marquice Williams, of course, with young players like Avery Williams and newcomers like Erik Harris figuring to find prominent roles. As far as specialists go, though, Josh Harris and Younghoe Koo are comfortable ensconced as the top long snapper and kicker, respectively, and will have no competition for their jobs.

That leaves two open competitions, one figuring to be more interesting than the other, and that’s where we’ll focus our attention in this article.

We’ll save the defense for the weekend, because the position battles over there are sweeping and significant, especially along the defensive line.


Contenders: Sterling Hofrichter, Dom Maggio

Who knew we’d have a punter competition in 2021?

Hofrichter is fresh off an unspectacular but decent enough rookie season, and given that he proved capable of filling in on kickoffs, handled field goals in college, and was Younghoe Koo’s holder during his magical season, his resume to this point should give him a leg up in the battle. I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere close to Hofrichter’s best work to this point, and I think merely showing some improvement this summer will be enough to get him his job back in 2021.

Maggio was the team’s first free agent signing under Terry Fontenot, and brings a strong leg to the competition. He likely caught the eye of former Ravens scout Dwaune Jones during a stint in Baltimore, and now that Jones is assistant director of college scouting for the Falcons, Maggio’s getting his shot in Atlanta. He notably had a higher average yards per punt in his college career than Hofrichter and had a truly stellar senior season where he finished second in voting for the Ray Guy award honoring college football’s best punter, and the production suggests the talent here. I expect Hofrichter to win this, but if Maggio is clearly better over the summer, the incumbent doesn’t have ties to the new regime to help him fend off the challenger.

Punt returner

Contenders: Avery Williams, Chris Rowland, Olamide Zaccheaus

The Falcons have a ton of players on the roster today who have significant college or pro experience as kick returners, but comparatively few who have had that kind of work as punt returners. All of the former are out of luck given that the Falcons are obviously handing their kick returner job to Cordarrelle Patterson, but crucially, Patterson does not return punts. That leaves an open spot for someone else.

The only two experienced contenders for the punt returner gig are rookie corner Avery Williams and second-year wide receiver Chris Rowland, as far as I can tell. Rowland was our hot pick to win that gig last year before ultimately losing it to Brandon Powell, and with good reason: He was a wizard at it in college, piling up 74 kick returns for 1,689, 46 punt returners for 543 yards, and two combined touchdowns. His speed and shiftiness make him a deeply intriguing option, and had the draft unfolded differently, he might have been a shoo-in for the job.

Avery Williams also has a terrific case, however. He had 82 punt returners for 948 yards in his college career and scored 6 touchdowns in that role, which is simply an eye-popping total. The Boise State product is a player the Falcons clearly like, and he’ll go into this competition as the betting favorite, though I wouldn’t bet against Rowland giving him a run for his money. Williams’ production and promise as a defender likely lock him into one or both of the returner roles in 2022 and beyond, though.

I threw Zaccheaus in here because he had 5 college punt returns and would be an interesting option, but I fully expect it to come down to Williams and Rowland.