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: Returner.
Field position is going to become even more critical with the Falcons seemingly destined to embrace a conservative, ball-control offense. The combination of Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder won’t total 5,000+ passing yards in 2022. Special teams may always matter... but it will matter more this year. Atlanta will rely on field position more than most teams, relying (hopefully) on an electric returner.
The recent history at kick returner
Kick returner is a funny position.
In 2018, the team’s top returner was Marvin Hall, who left the team the next offeseason. In 2019, the team’s top returner was Kenjon Barner, who left the team the next offseason. In 2020, the team’s top returner was Brandon Powell, who left the team the next offseason. In 2021, the team’s top returner was Avery Williams, who... left his position of corner and is now playing at running back.
In sum, it is not a position of consistency. If a returner is really good, teams try to fit them somewhere on offense or defense. If that returner is just OK, the team may try to find a replacement with better versatility.
What I am about to say make shock you, but the fact that it may be shocking has more to say about the blocking talent that Williams himself: Williams was Pro Football Focus’s top ranked kick returner.
OK, maybe you heard about it when the Falcons tweeted about it.
Avery Williams had the NFL's highest kickoff return grade in 2021 pic.twitter.com/778PRJ6qkj— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) April 8, 2022
Williams had nearly 650 return yards between kicks and punts, a number which certainly could have been higher with better blocking.
At corner, he showed a lot of room for improvement. So much so that he is looking at the aforementioned position change. The problem here isn’t his special teams ability. The problem is that sticking as a pure special teamer is tough. Cordarrelle Patterson made a career out of it (before 2021), but those players are few and far between.
Patterson was likely penciled in as a return specialist early last offseason. He was instead a revelation on offense, breaking out as a versatile weapon with the ball in his hands. His special teams play was quickly curtailed and Arthur Smith thereafter installed Patterson predominately into the offense.
Patterson is likely not in the running for a prominent returner position at this time. However, his offensive role may be a bit toned down with a (potentially) deeper depth chart, opening up opportunity at returner. This looks like at outside shot vs. anything realistic.
This wide receiver, seemingly penciled in at WR3, had five returns in 2021. Zaccheaus should have a good opportunity here, and would be a sensical fit as a contributor on both offense and special teams (vs. a special teams specialist like Williams). Zaccheaus additionally had an impressive (but limited) punt return stats, putting his great foot speed to work.
Who wins the battle?
If the Falcons were further along on its roster development, this competition may be more interesting. A playoff team struggling to work down to its 53-man roster may look at Patterson and Zaccheaus and let them split punts and kicks. That frees up one of those rare roster spots, allowing the team to keep another defensive back or perhaps a developmental pass rusher.
The Falcons aren’t close to that point. Terry Fontenot is also not at the point of cutting a fifth-round pick after only one season. Williams looks unlikely to be a corner in this league. Transitioning to another position is not usually a recipe for success. But the Falcons have the opportunity, and the lack of other options, to give Williams a chance. During that time, he should certainly be the team’s return specialist.