2016 Team Needs: Falcons Tempted To Go Young on Special Teams

Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsMatt Bryant

The special teams unit of the Atlanta Falcons is normally a steady group, but may undergo significant changes this offseason in a bid to get younger there.

That youth movement may begin at kicker where the team needs to decide whether long-time stalwart Matt Bryant deserves to return. Bryant missed the final six games of the 2015 season and had a few too many uncharacteristic missed field goals as well. Bryant hadn’t missed a field goal inside 50 yards within the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome since November 2012, but missed three such kicks this past season.

Bryant’s own arrival in Atlanta back at the end of 2009 is a reminder of the concern at kicker moving forward. Bryant then replaced a struggling Jason Elam, who was 39 at the time. Elam had been a reliable and steady kicker until that year but clearly whatever was left in the tank evaporated.

The perception may be that Bryant has now reached that same point with him on the verge of turning 41 in May. He carries a cap hit of nearly $3 million oin 2016 and if the team deems hat his downward trend will continue, it might be worthwhile for them to cut him loose.

Replacing an injured Bryant down the stretch last season was Shayne Graham, who will hit free agency in March. But Graham is unlikely to repeat history and be considered a permanent replacement option since he just celebrated his 38th birthday in December.  Graham’s performance was admirable given he was basically called off the street to play for the Falcons, but at this point in his career, he’s just an emergency option. If the Falcons find themselves in a pinch again they will have his number on speed dial, but they won’t bring him back unless they lack other options.

Those other options could entail drafting a kicker this spring. Given the advanced ages of Bryant and Graham, going young makes sense with a completely fresh start. However there isn’t a rich history of success when it comes to drafting kickers, which could become another reason why the Falcons just opt to give Bryant one more shot.

After all the team deemed Bryant worthy enough to give him a three-year contract last year, suggesting that they then believed that he had more than 10 games left in the tank.

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Devin Hester

Besides kicker, the other main area where the team is likely to employ a youth movement comes at return specialist. Devin Hester, 33, missed most of 2015 with a toe injury and is expected to be sidelined for much of the offseason coming off surgery. That absence may cause the Falcons to look in a new direction, particularly finding another young return threat that they can grow with in the future.

The team could try and plug in someone like Eric Weems or Nick Williams, but both are no more than stopgap options. Justin Hardy is also an experienced punt returner, but lacks the same level of dynamic playmaking skills that would be lost even with an older Hester.

Should the Falcons part ways with Hester, they’ll likely prioritize finding an explosive return threat in the draft, likely targeting a backup wide receiver or cornerback that brings dual special-teams ability to the fold. If Hester does return, then it’s likely the Falcons will pay extra attention to any camp bodies that also show potential as returners with an eye towards the future.

In contrast, there are no concerns at punter and long snapper where Matt Bosher and Josh Harris, respectively, are situated. Both players are locked up long-term with Bosher being under contract through the 2019 season and Harris through 2018. So there’s no reason for the Falcons to make changes at either spot this offseason.

But there could be significant changes in the Falcons’ special-teams coverage units in the coming months. Weems is no lock to stick on the roster and was an integral part of their coverage units, finishing second on the team with seven special-teams tackles behind Nate Stupar (nine). If he is cut, there will be a void that needs filling.

Not to mention other players like Jalen Collins (five tackles), Kemal Ishmael (four), Robert Alford (three) and Hardy (two) may see more action on offense or defense this year, limiting their reps on special teams. Throw in the fact that O’Brien Schofield (two tackles) and Kroy Biermann (three) are free agents, then the potential is relatively high for significant turnover on the coverage units headed into 2016.

While it’s not something that is likely to be a top priority, the Falcons could look to add some low-level free agents or late-round picks targeted specifically to fill out depth roles on special teams to facilitate any makeover.

The special teams unit has been one of the steadier groups on the roster over the years, but there’s reason to believe that significant turnover is on the horizon at kicker, returner and on coverage units. That turnover might come this offseason as the team looks to reshape their special teams for the future.

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Aaron Freeman
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