Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Special TeamsThe Atlanta Falcons special teams unit won’t appear much different than it has the past two seasons with the same group of specialists at kicker, punter and long snapper. But there is one big addition in the return game that could make a significant difference.
Incumbent kicker Matt Bryant, punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris return for the third consecutive season. Bryant has been a reliable, clutch kicker over his past five seasons with the Falcons. He’s getting up in age and 2014 might mark his final season in Atlanta, but the Falcons should feel fairly confident that his previous success will continue this year. The team did however bring in a young option in undrafted rookie Sergio Castillo to push him. Castillo is a long shot to unseat Bryant, but can impress the coaching staff enough that he can return on the short list of kickers next year if the team and Bryant part ways.
Bosher is becoming one of the league’s best young punters and won’t face any challengers for his position. Bosher is likely due for a contract extension at the end of the year, and thus his goal this summer will be preparing to put forth his best effort during the season to achieve maximum earning potential.
Harris has had a few lapses over the years, but they appear to become less and less with each passing season. So there’s no reason to expect the Falcons to be disappointed with his performance moving forward.
However, the one big move occurred with the team now having ex-Chicago Bear Devin Hester serve as return specialist. Hester is arguably the best return in NFL history and needs just one more score to sit atop the all-time leader board as far as non-offensive touchdowns go. Hester, 31, is not quite the dynamic threat he was in his prime, he’s still a very effective return threat that commands respect from opposing teams. Many teams still kick away from him because of his potential to take it the distance every time he touches the ball, although it’s not quite the death sentence it once was.
Both the kickoff and punt return jobs are locked up and Hester won’t receive any real competition. But the team may still opt to give undrafted rookies Bernard Reedy and Tramaine Thompson some work in that capacity during the preseason since both were productive returners during their college days.
Javier Arenas has also served as a returner throughout his NFL career and provides a proven insurance policy in the event Hester gets injured. But Arenas is not guaranteed a roster spot and his return skills may not be necessarily be his saving grace. The Falcons still have Jacquizz Rodgers, an experienced kickoff returner, as well as Robert McClain to return punts. Neither Rodgers nor McClain should be in danger of losing their jobs respectively on offense and defense, and thus give the Falcons adequate insurance policies in case Arenas doesn’t make the cut.
Another key area of competition this summer will be in regards to the team’s coverage units. This past offseason the team lost several contributors on special teams in Jason Snelling, Stephen Nicholas, Akeem Dent, Kevin Cone and Thomas DeCoud. They may lose even more if injuries prevent Zeke Motta and Drew Davis from suiting up this season. Patrick DiMarco and Cliff Matthews were also regular members on special teams units last season and aren’t assured roster spots. Finding suitable replacements for the aforementioned will be a key element in determining several other position battles.
It’s likely the team will count among it’s multiple rookie draft picks at linebacker in Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill, Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr to help fill some of the void. Defensive backs Kemal Ishmael, Dezmen Southward and Ricardo Allen also should get opportunities to become core special teams players. Free-agent pickups Courtney Roby, Tim Dobbins, Pat Angerer, Javier Arenas and Josh Wilson may also need to prove themselves on specail teams in order to stick. And it goes without saying that most of the undrafted rookies will be required to prove themselves on special teams to beat the odds and stick.
If the Falcons can replenish, and possibly improve their coverage units then there is every reason to believe that the team could sport one of the league’s premier special teams units with sustained play from the kickers and a boost in the return game from Hester.