K Younghoe Koo
2022 stats: 32/37 on field goals for an 86.5% rate; 33/35 on extra points for a 86.5% rate
This was a “down year” for Koo in the sense that it was his worst field goal percentage since he arrived in Atlanta, and he did miss a couple of extra points. This was also the first year he didn’t handle kickoffs for Atlanta, with Bradley Pinion taking over those duties, so it was all about those uprights for Koo in 2022.
The reality is every kicker has off years—the immortal Justin Tucker had a similar stat line—and Koo was nails after the early part of the season. He converted more 50-plus yarders than all but six other kickers in the league and routinely hit kicks in pressure-packed situations, as we’ve gotten used to. Heading into his age 29 season, Koo figures to continue to be one of the league’s more reliable kickers, and the big contract extension he signed means he’ll be here over the long haul.
P Bradley Pinion
2022 stats: 62 punts, 45.9 yards per punt average, 41.2 net yards per punt, 3.2% touchback rate, 37.1% punts downed inside the 20 yard line rate; 80 kickoffs, 73.8% touchback rate, 64.3 yards per kickoff
We covered Pinion yesterday in the free agent punters roundup, but suffice to say he quietly had a good season.
Pinion was middle-of-the-pack in most metrics, but crucially was very good at keeping his punts out of the end zone, which can lead to very favorable field position for opposing offenses. It’s not a coincidence that some of Atlanta’s finer defensive efforts in terms of scoring came in games where Pinion routinely pinned offenses deep, leading to the kind of long-but-not-leading-to-a-touchdown drives Dean Pees championed.
He also handled kickoffs full-time for the Falcons this year, the first time someone other than Koo has done so for a full season since the latter arrived in Atlanta, and did a fine job there. Given that strong all-around work, the Falcons seem likely to bring Pinion back.
LS Liam McCullough
Josh Harris has big shoes to fill. The terrific long snapper held down the spot for Atlanta for a decade, but in his first year in Atlanta, McCullough overcame some summer hiccups to enjoy a very good season for the Falcons, free of the kinds of mistakes you would definitely notice. He may not be Harris, but he’s certainly good enough.
That steady work and the ease of re-signing McCullough should ensure he’s here in 2023, which will be welcome news for Atlanta’s specialists.
KR Cordarrelle Patterson
One of the greatest kickoff returners in NFL history, Patterson only wound up returning nine kicks in all of 2022. His 31.6 yards per return would’ve been easily the best mark in the league had he qualified, helped considerably by one of the plays of the year for the Falcons, a 103 yard return for a touchdown that gave Patterson sole possession of first place in NFL history for kickoff return scores.
That sort of points to the ideal overall role for Patterson going forward: Occasionally terrifying option to catch the ball, run the ball, and return kicks, but one it makes sense to use more sparingly than you might have in 2021. He still has the juice to be a problem—he proved it multiple times in 2022—but Avery Williams should and will field kicks too.
KR/PR Avery Williams
2022 stats: 16 kick returns, 19.6 yards per return; 18 punt returns, 16.2 yards per punt return
Williams is a more explosive kick returner than his numbers would indicate, as he would’ve been toward the bottom third of the league in average there had he enough returns to qualify. Splitting those returns with Patterson, who teams fear, remains a good move for the Falcons, and we’ll see if Williams can truly break out there in his third year.
As a punt returner, though, Williams is lethal. If he had enough punt returns to qualify, Williams would’ve easily had the best average in the entire NFL in 2022, and he routinely made defenders look silly on those returns. He should continue to be among the best in the NFL at that in 2023, as well as potentially stepping into a slightly larger role in the backfield.
Special teams coaches do not get enough consideration and commendation for the work they do, so let’s give Marquice Williams his flowers now. In my mind, he’s one of the better coordinators in football, and he’s maximized what he has in Atlanta two seasons in a row.
The Falcons have a very good kicker and a pair of good returners, but a good special teams unit requires more than that. Atlanta blocked well for Patterson and Williams, enabling some truly dynamic returns, and Pinion did an excellent job of trying to limit the damage on kickoffs and punt returns. When teams did have an opportunity to return, a very good group was able to further limit the damage, as Atlanta allowed the seventh-fewest return yards in the NFL this season. It’s no wonder that the Falcons were among the best teams in the league on special teams per Football Outsiders.
Falcons finished 5th in special teams DVOA this year pic.twitter.com/vYpXx0rCVC— Tre’Shon (@tre3shon) January 17, 2023
You can be good at certain aspects and not have a cohesively great special teams group—the Falcons were like this late in Keith Armstrong’s storied tenure in Atlanta—but if you’re good at pretty much everything you probably have a strong coach. For a team that played in a lot of close games this year and wasn’t particularly great at anything else but running the ball, that special teams value was critical and allowed the Falcons to stay competitive in games they otherwise might not have. With so many questions swirling around this team this offseason, knowing they should be at least good on special teams in 2023 is comforting.
The Falcons will hope to keep Marquice Williams around over the long haul and bring back their core group of specialists, as well as a handful of key special teamers like Erik Harris and Mike Ford. Regardless of who they ultimately keep and sign, Williams’ presence and the ongoing excellence of players like Koo and Williams should ensure the Falcons’ special teams remains a true team strength again in 2023.