Robert Alford could man both return spots this year
The Falcons brought in a pair of undrafted specialists in Jeremy Shelley and Sean Sellwood to push kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher, respectively. Both are longshots and unless Bryant or Bosher get hurt really don’t stand much of a chance to make the roster.
Instead both will be competing in the hopes that it may impress another NFL team that could pick them up at the end of the summer off waivers. If either of them offer much potential for the Falcons it’s Shelley. Matt Bryant is signed through the 2014 season, but is already 38 years old. He’s been highly productive for the Falcons since joining the team late in 2009, but age eventually always catches up. Jason Elam was also solid for the Falcons until he turned 39 that same season, and his inconsistency prompted the team replace him with Bryant. So in reality if Shelley can have an impressive summer, he could be on speed dial in case there is any dropoff from Bryant in the near future. Shelley was one of the more accurate kickers in college football the past few years while at Alabama, specializing on short field goals. He’ll have to prove that he has NFL-caliber leg strength however.
Like Bosher, Sellwood possesses a big leg, but really is just insurance. Bosher struggled throughout his rookie season in 2011, but emerged as one of the top young punters with a much more consistent 2012 season. Sellwood really is only around in case Bosher regresses, which isn’t likely.
Long snapper Josh Harris had a bit of a rocky rookie season, but the Falcons didn’t bring in any direct competition for him. Assuming he doesn’t regress this summer, he should be a lock to retain his spot.
The big battle at this position group will be for the returner positions. Jacquizz Rodgers returned kickoffs last year, while Dominique Franks managed punts. Rodgers was effective at times in his role, but Franks was not. More than likely the Falcons would prefer another young player to emerge at either spot. However, the likelihood that Rodgers has a decreased role on offense due to the presence of Steven Jackson, means that he may better handle return duties. But in reality, he’s probably only going to open the season as the kickoff returner if no one else emerges.
The best candidate may be second round pick Robert Alford. While Alford primarily returned punts in college, his skillset may be better suited to returning kicks due to his excellent straight-line speed. In a perfect world, Alford will take over at both spots and give the Falcons a big play element that has been missing since the heyday of Allen Rossum. He’ll be competing with a number of other potential candidates.
Tim Toone, while not a big play threat as a punt returner, showed last summer that he can be somewhat reliable when it comes to consistently getting yardage. That is a valuable trait in that role and lacking that ability was one of the biggest reasons why Franks struggled last year. Undrafted rookies Rashad Evans and Darius Johnson both offer explosive speed and return experience from college. James Rodgers, Jacquizz’s brother nearly won a spot last summer and if he can improve upon that he is a prime candidate to win one of the spots.
Antone Smith and Harry Douglas also might be in the mix as they have return experience, but really are only options of last resort if no one else emerges.