Special teams is one of the few areas of the Atlanta Falcons roster that can be considered strong and without any obvious needs, but that doesn’t mean that the team will ignore the position in the 2015 NFL Draft.
It would make perfect sense if they did however, since so much effort was spent on the unit in free agency. The majority of players that the Falcons re-signed or brought in this offseason was a player that had extensive experience playing on special teams.
Obviously the team re-signed kicker Matt Bryant, which was a priority heading into the offseason. His retention keeps the trio of core specialists alongside punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris intact for the next few years.
Eric Weems, Nate Stupar and Antone Smith were all re-signed, arguably the three best players on the Falcons’ coverage teams in 2014. Cliff Matthews and Patrick DiMarco were also brought back, both of whom have carved out significant roles the past two years on special teams. Kroy Biermann hasn’t played a ton of special teams since 2012, but at least offers that value especially if he is going to be relegated as a backup in 2015.
The team signed Allen Bradford, who’s playing time has been almost exclusively on the special teams of various teams over the years.Like Bradford, guard Mike Person saw most of his playing time also come on special teams too. Nick Williams and Phillip Adams, two more additions, both have return abilities and experience. O’Brien Schofield was one of the Seahawks’ top special teams players in recent years.
It seems like the Falcons made a significant effort to bolster and solidify their special teams units in free agency so that they could largely ignore it in the draft.
Although that statement is never true since the vast majority of players that aren’t first or second-day picks will have play on special teams to earn a roster spot. Instead, the Falcons may be planning to avoid mid-to-late round players with the express purpose of filling special teams roles, as the Falcons have been known to do from time to time under the previous regime.
However if there is one area of the unit that the Falcons may be looking to addressing explicitly, it might be in the return game. As noted in my breakdown of the team’s draft needs at wide receiver, the possibility that Devin Hester may be playing his final season in Atlanta seems to be increasing.
The Falcons have worked out a number of wide receiver and defensive back prospects that served as return specialists during their college days. That comes in conjunction with the additions of Williams and Adams, along with the fact that the team is also returning Weems, Bernard Reedy and Robert Alford.
Among those players, Reedy is probably the best in-house candidate to replace Hester as the team’s primary return specialist if need be. But Reedy is by no means a lock to make the roster in 2015 and his chances only decrease if the Falcons draft a wide receiver with return skills.
If the Falcons do opt to draft a return specialist, it’ll likely come at the tail end of the draft where the team is looking for an explosive wideout or tall cornerback that can potentially be cut and stowed on the practice squad for a year. That may ultimately be the same plan moving forward for Reedy, who remains eligible for that list in 2015. Should he or a rookie show considerable promise during this summer’s preseason in the return game, it may put the writing on the wall for Hester.
Hester was solid as a returner for the Falcons in 2014, evidenced by his trip to the Pro Bowl, but will turn 33 this fall and is not quite the fearsome threat he once was. But even despite the decline, Hester still remains one of the league’s better returners. But the Falcons might decide that paying a declining 33-year old return specialist that has limited upside on offense $3.8 million in 2016 is too big an expenditure moving forward.
If that is the way the wind is blowing, then there’s a decent chance that the Falcons will seek to find his replace