When the Atlanta Falcons lost Avery Williams in organized team activities to a season-ending injury, they lost one of their most dynamic players. The team was counting on Williams to be a plus punt returner, useful kick returner option when Cordarrelle Patterson couldn’t go, and speedy complement to Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier, and Patterson in the backfield as a runner and receiver. If you’ve ever lost a Swiss Army knife and needed to loosen a screw and pop open a beer bottle on the same day, you know that losing versatility like Williams offers is frustrating at best.
While I lamented how significant the loss was at the time, I don’t think any of us realized just how much the Falcons would miss Williams. Consider the following:
- In 2022, the Falcons led the NFL by a wide margin in average yardage per punt return, with 16.2 (the Lions were second at 13.2). They were just one of eight teams with a 40-plus yard return, as well. In 2023, with Williams out, they were third to last in the NFL at 7.2 yards per punt return; they had fewer total punt return yards (230 vs. 292) on 15 more returns.
- In 2022, Williams averaged a so-so 19.6 yards per kick return on 16 opportunities, allowing him to be a workhorse returner while the team picked its spot for Cordarrelle Patterson. In 2023, the Falcons had just 14 kick returns total, and only Patterson averaged more yards per kick return than Williams’ 2022 average. Mike Hughes was the next closest with an anemic 15.3 yards per return; the Falcons were second-to-last in the NFL in kick return average.
- In 2022, Williams averaged 5 yards per carry as an electric change-of-pace for the more physical Allgeier and Patterson, while also providing steady hands as a checkdown option out of the backfield. With him gone, the Falcons were lacking that super speedy option and proven receiving back, and all those touches went to Bijan Robinson instead. The latter role in particular seemed a waste of Robinson’s talent; getting Williams back will help the team optimize the touches Robinson is getting.
When you add it all up, the Falcons lost a capable kick returner, useful reserve running back and receiving option, and one of the league’s best punt returners. As I wrote back in early November, Atlanta’s awful starting field position was one of the consequences of that loss, as was a less-than-stellar special teams years across the board. Williams fills so many niches for this team that they were bound to feel it when he was lost for the season; the only surprise was just how bad things got on returns in particular without him.
The positive side of the equation is that Williams should be slated to return in time for training camp this year, and we now better appreciate just how vital he can be. The Falcons will head into this spring with no established third back, and they can weigh whether Williams can fill that role. If healthy, he’s likely to be the team’s kick and punt returner on a full-time basis with Patterson unlikely to return, and going from whatever the hell Mike Hughes was doing back there to what we know Williams can do at an extremely high level will help to put the offense in more favorable positions, if nothing else.
The Falcons will be augmenting their roster in a dozen ways between now and the summer, but don’t sleep on the difference Williams will make for this team when he returns. The Falcons found out the hard way just how much they missed their best Swiss Army knife in 2023.