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Preseason punter problem plagues Falcons

Not one but two punter injuries have the team in a bit of a bind as preseason looms.

NFL: DEC 06 Saints at Falcons Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Atlanta’s punter battle was between two players, Sterling Hofrichter and Dom Maggio. Hofrichter was a 2020 rookie draft pick who handled kickoffs and the punter job throughout his rookie season, while Maggio was the hand-picked challenger for the new regime with the strong leg who would likely handle both duties if he won the job. That’s a tidy little situation, one the Falcons likely thought would be resolved by a camp battle.

Unfortunately, it’s not that tidy after all. The Falcons waived Hofrichter with an injury designation on Tuesday, and if he clears waivers he’ll revert to injured reserve, with a possibility that he’ll return at some point in 2021 if the Falcons want to make that happen. Maggio, too, is dealing with an injury, one that doesn’t sound as significant but might impact his availability for upcoming preseason games.

The Falcons swiftly worked out a few options and signed former Georgia punter and 2020 Falcons practice squadder Cameron Nizialek, who will fill in for now and likely push his way into the conversation for the punter battle if he impresses in preseason. Without knowing Maggio’s timeline, though, it’s quite possible that neither guy Atlanta was counting on to compete for a roster spot is going to be 100% healthy for the start of the season.

Younghoe Koo is capable of handling kickoffs, obviously—and you want him handling onside kicks—-but the Falcons would ideally go into the year with a very good punter who can take on those duties if they want that to happen. I’m not saying Nizialek can’t do that, but he was not the regime’s first or second choice to do so.

The bad news is that Hofrichter seems likely to miss significant time, if not the entire season, so Atlanta’s issues here aren’t magically going to clear up when preseason is over. The hope now is that Maggio proves to be as talented as Atlanta’s eagerness to sign him—remember, he was the first free agent of Terry Fontenot’s tenure—would suggest, and that Nizialek or a yet unsigned punter the team brings in later can push him hard until it’s time to cut down to a 53 man roster. If he struggles or the team can’t find a consistent option, they’ll have to hope Hofrichter can come back at some point this season and muddle through somehow.

The one positive note here, and the reason Arthur Smith did not rule out Hofrichter entirely for the season, is that the flexible injured reserve rules from 2020 are intact. That means players are eligible to return after three weeks and the Falcons don’t have to give Hofrichter any special designation to have him return if he’s ready to do so. Until we get an update from the team on Hofrichter’s timeline, that’s at least a hopeful note.

Punter may not seem like this team’s biggest problem area, but we know this team already has enough question marks to deal with. It’d be best if injury didn’t create yet another one at a position that seemed like a straightforward two man competition, but we’re stuck wondering exactly how big that problem will prove to be.