The Atlanta Falcons will feature the same core specialists in 2015 that they did in 2014. All the battles among the special teams will be between the litany of old and new players that will try and stick on coverage units.
Kicker Matt Bryant was re-signed to a three-year deal in February. The team hope’s the league’s all-time best clutch kicker will be able to finish his career strong in Atlanta over the next few seasons despite turning 40 this past May.
Punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris return, both having signed contract extensions last September. Both had rocky starts to their respective Falcon careers, but have solidified themselves in the years since as ultra-reliable. Bosher will continue to handle kickoffs as well.
Devin Hester is also set to return kicks and punts again this year. Despite the fact that he’ll turn 33 in November, the Falcons have high expectations that he’ll continue to play at a high level.
But given Hester’s age and the fact that he is signed only through 2016, the Falcons might begin to explore what their other options are in the return game this summer. Wide receiver Bernard Reedy was the team’s main option behind Hester on returns last summer and that’s likely to continue. Reedy could become a prime candidate to replace Hester in 2016 or 2017, thus it’s likely that the Falcons will give him plenty of opportunities to showcase his potential this summer.
Fellow receivers Justin Hardy and Marquez Clark also served as returners during their college days. It’s unlikely that the Falcons will give Hardy more than a perfunctory look as a punt returner this summer, but Clark should be able to get significant opportunities. Like Reedy, a strong summer as a returner might improve Clark’s chances of landing on the practice squad or at least get on another team’s radar should he be released by the Falcons.
Eric Weems is also an experienced returner, giving the Falcons a nice insurance policy at the position going into the regular season in case neither Reedy or Clark make the roster. Weems is also the team’s leading performer on coverage units, making the odds high that he’ll stick on the team.
Other top returning performers on coverage a year ago are running back Antone Smith and linebacker Nate Stupar. Dezmen Southward, Cliff Matthews, Patrick DiMarco, Malliciah Goodman, Levine Toilolo, Kemal Ishmael and Devonta Freeman all saw plenty of reps on the Falcons’ coverage units a year ago and return this summer too.There’s also the possibility that defensive end Kroy Biermann also reverts back to his regular role on special teams from previous seasons. Their experience working with special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong should give each of them a leg up in their respective roster battles at other positions.
However, the Falcons did make an effort to bolster their special teams this offseason with the many of the players added this spring being experienced special-teams players. Jacob Tamme, O’Brien Schofield, Phillip Adams and Nick Williams were regular contributors on special teams with their older teams. Tamme is expected to be the starter at tight end, so he probably won’t get serious look on special teams; but the others will certainly be looking to supplement the Falcons’ already solid units.
Of course many of the team’s incoming rookies, especially cornerback Akeem King, will certainly need to prove themselves on special teams in order to stick on the roster. Key position battles where special-teams prowess will matter will certainly be at linebacker, cornerback and safety, where all the backups on the team will be expected to contribute in the third phase of the game.
Building an NFL roster typically includes 36 to 38 players that are regularly featured on offense or defense. That leaves anywhere between 15 and 17 spots for players that their primary contribution to the Falcons in 2015 will be expected to come on special teams. Of course, three of those spots will go to the kicker, punter and long snapper. But the other dozen or more spots will be those that prove themselves valuable in coverage and blocking units. With 90 players coming into the camp, it makes the battle for the finite amount of roles on special teams the most contentious of any in camp.