We’re not that far away from training camp, which means it’s an excellent time to look at the state of some of the biggest position battles on the roster. We’ll kick things off with easily the most intriguing and impactful: Punter.
The Falcons would love to settle on a long-term option at punter. The team is set for the foreseeable future with Younghoe Koo at kicker, but punter has been a trouble spot for the last couple of seasons and long snapper now is a position of concern after the team let Josh Harris walk in free agency. Competition is great and all, but on special teams there’s something to be said for locking in a player you can truly count on for a handful of high-impact plays per game.
The question is whether one of the two options the team is bringing to training camp this summer will prove to be the guy for the long haul. Let’s take a closer look at the training camp battle ahead, right after we take a look back on the good old days.
The recent history at punter
Atlanta could count on relative stability at punter for a long, long time. From 2005 to 2010, Michael Koenen held the job for Atlanta and was routinely solid in the role. From 2011 to 2019, the great Matt Bosher was the team’s punter, and he put together arguably the greatest career of any punter in Falcons history, delivering some highlight reel tackles along the way. The duo are #2 (Bosher) and #4 (Koenen) in punts and #4 and #8 in average yards per punt in team history, and between the two of them, the team was essentially set at punter for 15 straight seasons.
Since then, things have been a bit of a whirlwind. Sterling Hofrichter won the job in 2020 and held it all year, with the Thomas Dimitroff selection having an underwhelming but not disastrous rookie season. Somewhat surprisingly, he lost the job in summer 2021 to former Georgia product Cameron Nizialek, who was injured and gave way to Dustin Colquitt. Both were solid enough, but after Colquitt landed on the COVID-19 list, he was replaced by Thomas Morstead. That’s who finished the year punting for Atlanta, and while Morstead was unquestionably terrific in the role, the Falcons did not re-sign him this offseason.
That leaves the team with an unsettled position, and they’ll be rolling with their fifth new punter in three seasons unless Nizialek or Colquitt return. Fans and the team alike no doubt are yearning for the days of competence and stability at the position, so the hope will be whoever wins the job this offseason keeps it for a long time.
So who’s currently pushing for the job? There are two players at the moment, neither of whom have ever punted in a regular season NFL game.
Joining early last year, Maggio was thought to be Sterling Hofrichter’s primary competition for the starting job last summer. Instead, both Hofrichter and Maggio wound up on injured reserve and were later waived, with the job going to Cameron Nizialek. Maggio re-joined the practice squad later in the year and has been around since.
Maggio should probably be viewed as the early favorite because he’ll be entering his second summer with Atlanta, and the staff clearly likes him if he’s been able to hang around this entire time. While he has yet to punt in an NFL game, Maggio was a productive option in college and averaged nearly 47 yards per punt in his senior season back in 2019, showcasing a good leg in the process. Still just 24 years old, Maggio could emerge as a long-term option if he wins the job.
A 2022 undrafted free agent, Vernon averaged nearly 45 yards per punt for Portland State last year. The fact that he’s one of just two punters on the roster, and the other one isn’t particularly proven, suggests he’ll have a real shot at winning the job outright.
In an offseason where the Falcons seemed to prioritize adding size and athleticism nearly everywhere, Vernon is the man who fits the theme at punter. Listed at 6’5” and 230 pounds—for comparison’s sake, that’s 4 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Maggio—Vernon was a high school and JUCO wide receiver and might be able to do some fun things as a utility player and on fake punts in the pros. His ability to win the job is going to hinge on how well his punting translates to the NFL, though, and Maggio does have the longer and more established track record in that regard.
Who wins the battle?
This is very difficult to predict, I think, but I’ll put a small stake in the ground and say I expect it to be Vernon. All things equal, Vernon’s intriguing size and athleticism and strong leg should make him the favorite so long as he shows well in training camp and preseason. This is less about experience and track record than it is about upside and quality punts in the summer heat, given the options available to the Falcons.
Regardless of who wins, the Falcons will have a cheap, young punter who will get an extended audition during a year where none of us are all that sure Atlanta’s going to be any good. It’s a question of how good the winner will prove to be. While Younghoe Koo is pretty locked in to handling kickoffs—he’s league average in that arena but elite in terms of onside kicks—it will help if the new punter is also a capable tackler and can handle kickoffs in a pinch.
Don’t be surprised if the team’s 2022 punter is not on the roster, however, as chances are good some quality punters will shake loose after roster cuts. Cameron Nizialek will likely lose out to Pressley Harvin III in Pittsburgh and already has experience with this coaching staff, while Buffalo’s Matt Haack seems extremely likely to be cut and is an experienced, solid option. Cameron Dicker, who has an intriguing leg in his own right, could be on the outs with the Rams if Riley Dixon wins the job again. Suffice to say the Falcons will have some options if this battle doesn’t whelm the coaching staff.
If Vernon or Maggio impresses enough this summer, though, the Falcons will likely roll on with an affordable young option. Keep your eye on this battle, because if all goes well the Falcons may have their punter of the present and future by September.