Most summers the Atlanta Falcons special teams is fairly stable position group that won’t feature a ton of competition. That is expected to change this summer in 2016.
The last time the Falcons featured a major position battle for one of the five main special-teams positions: kicker, punter, long snapper, kickoff returner and/or punt returner was back in 2013 when the team had question marks at the latter two positions.
Now the Falcons will once again feature a fairly open competition for the return duties, but also for the first time there might be the potential that one of their three primary specialists in kicker Matt Bryant could be unseated.
This is not the first summer that the Falcons have brought in a young kicker to compete for place-kicking duties with the 41-year old Bryant. But this is probably the first summer where there was more than a sliver of a hope that Bryant could lose the battle. The last time there was a legitimate challenger to Bryant was back in 2010 when the team had in Steven Hauschka to push the veteran.
Unlike Hauschka had then, this year’s competition for Bryant in undrafted rookie Nick Rose lacks NFL experience. While Rose still remains a long shot to make the team, enough cracks began to show in Bryant a year ago to the point that it’s not crazy if Rose does in fact manage to beat the odds. Bryant had his worst season kicking since joining the Falcons in 2009, making only 78 percent of his field-goal attempts after averaging 90 percent accuracy over the five previous seasons.
Notably Bryant’s previous pinpoint accuracy at home inside the Georgia Dome also took a hit last year. Bryant made eight of 11 field goals at home last year, a rate of just 73 percent. Dating back to 2010, Bryant had made 92 percent of field goals at home in the Georgia Dome with just six misses on 77 tries.
Throw on top of that the season-ending quadriceps injury that cost him the ability to play in the last six games of 2015, and there are serious concerns over Bryant has reached a “point of no return.” That possibility is more pressing considering that Bryant’s arrival in Atlanta came as a result of the decline of Jason Elam back in 2009. Elam also had been highly accurate in his first season in Atlanta in 2008, making 94 percent of his field goals. But at age 39 in 2009 managed just 63-percent accuracy before the Falcons cut him late in the year.
“Father Time” remains undefeated, as it is often said. Eventually Bryant will either have to retire on his own volition or have his play decline to a point where the Falcons are forced to choose that time for him. Should Bryant’s struggles from last season continue into this summer’s training camp, the chances of the latter occurring increase.
What Rose brings to the table is a strong leg, but he’ll have to prove that his accuracy is equally on point. He should benefit from playing inside a dome stadium, which should make any transition he might be forced to make to the NFL a little easier. But rookie kickers in general tend to struggle and in the event of a close battle, Bryant should get the nod given the wealth of his experience and success in big moments.
As mentioned earlier, the return duties are also up for grabs. The Falcons drafted wide receiver and return specialist Devin Fuller in the seventh round of this past April’s draft to challenge incumbent Devin Hester, who took over the Falcons return duties back in 2014. Hester is one of the most prolific returners in NFL history, topping the all-time list of most non-offensive return touchdowns with 20.
However the current coaching staff helmed by Dan Quinn doesn’t appear to see him as an essential piece of their roster. Hester was sidelined for most of the 2015 season with a toe injury that he hopes to overcome this summer. However he’s off to a bit of a rough start having missed the entire offseason program recovering from surgery on that injury.
Fortunately for him, Fuller was also sidelined with a hamstring injury as well, preventing him from getting a leg up on the veteran returner. But Fuller’s youth, draft status and salary should give him an advantage when it comes to final roster decisions once the real battle commences in training camp.
Also in the mix, especially if neither Hester nor Fuller can shake the injury bug this summer, will be a pair of college free agents in Daje Johnson and J.D. McKissic. Johnson was a far more productive returner during his shared days at Texas with Rose and should have the advantage when it comes to potentially being a third option in the battle at returner.
The Falcons also have some insurance policies in wide receivers Eric Weems, Nick Williams and Justin Hardy. Weems filled in for Hester throughout most of last year and could do so again if neither Hester nor Fuller step up. But Weems is also potentially on the roster bubble as well entering training camp.
As is the case most summers, punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris can sleep fairly easy when it comes to their roster spots as they face no challengers. The Falcons have full trust in the pair moving forward and likely project the 28 and 27-year old, respectively, to serve in their current capacities for many more years.
Bosher serves not only as the team’s punter but also their kickoff specialist. Yet while he’s firmly holding those two spots down the Falcons will be looking to fill out the rest of those coverage units this summer. The team lost a trio of regulars this offseason in linebackers Nate Stupar, O’Brien Schofield and defensive end Kroy Biermann.
All three players served roles on both kickoff and punt coverage units and the team will have to find suitable replacements. The team is likely to turn to whichever players land backup roles at linebacker as those primed to fill the trio’s shoes.
Rookie draft picks Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are two good bets, assuming they don’t land starting jobs, since they were regulars on their collegiate special-teams units. LaRoy Reynolds is also well-versed as a special teams. Brooks Reed, Courtney Upshaw and Sean Weatherspoon don’t offer a ton of experience on coverage units, but could also get longer looks this summer due to the possibility they could be serving as a reserves for the Falcons in 2016.
Another concern may be if the team does part ways with Wee,s, who will step up into his role. Weems has been one of their steadiest performers on special teams since he first started getting reps there in 2008 but it may be time for the Falcons to move on.
Fellow receivers Hardy and Williams both were regulars on kickoff coverage in the latter half of 2015 and could help pick up some of the slack. Hardy also served as one of the team’s gunners on punt coverage for about a quarter of last season. With the four-game suspension of cornerback Jalen Collins to start this upcoming season, there’s a good chance that he could fulfill those same duties again this year. Besides Hardy, Robenson Therezie and Akeem King are the most experienced options from a year ago beyond Collins.
But more importantly if the Falcons decide to cut Weems, they’ll have to find a new personal protector or “up-back” on their punt coverage team. Weems has served in that capacity for five out of the past seven seasons. The two years while he was with the Chicago Bears (2012-13), former Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers performed those duties.
The top candidate to replace or push Weems in those duties is probably safety Ricardo Allen. Allen was the only other player to get reps at up-back during last summer’s preseason and also filled in when Weems was sidelined with a concussion against the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 last year.
An indicator that the Falcons are seriously contemplating cutting Weems will be if Allen or another player start to get extended reps as Bosher’s new personal protector in preseason action this summer.
Overall the Falcons have a lot more position battles to sort out on special teams than normal. How things shake out at other position groups on both offense and defense will certainly have an impact on which players stick on special teams.
As usual, anybody that emerges this summer as a strong option on special teams will also greatly enhance their abilities to make the team elsewhere. Therezie is a good example of a player from last year that helped himself considerably thanks to his play on special teams. Others hope to follow in his shoes this summer as the Falcons remake their special teams unit.