Team Needs: Falcons Could Upgrade Special Teams in Return Game
The Atlanta Falcons special teams was perhaps the only aspect of their team that consistently played at a high level in 2013. Thus there won’t be any imperative drive to try to make substantial changes this offseason.
Matt Bryant, at age 38, showed he is still kicking strong. He is entering the final year of his contract and thus the only major concern for the Falcons is thinking about his eventual replacement in 2015 and beyond. It’s doubtful that the Falcons will try to replace Bryant this year since he’s been so effective in clutch situations as well as whenever he’s kicking inside the Georgia Dome. He’s made 21 of his last 22 field goal attempts kicking at home.
But the team should at least give a long look to a young kicker in training camp just to plan ahead to 2015 when it’s possible that Bryant could decide to hang it up. The Falcons tried this strategy over a decade ago when they carried Jake Arians on the practice squad in Morten Andersen’s final season in 2000. Arians was eventually beat out by Jay Feely the following summer for the kicking job, but the strategy is still a relatively sound one. The Falcons need to start prepping for the future and that begins this offseason.
The Falcons don’t have to do such preparation at punter as Matt Bosher is blossoming into one of the better young punters in the NFL. Bosher continues to make strides both as the team’s kickoff specialist and as a punter. His big leg proved an asset several times last year when the team struggled to move the ball offensively, to help flip field position and give the Falcons’ struggling defense a fighting chance. The only real issue moving forward with Bosher is when the Falcons plan to start talking contract extension. 2014 also represents the final year on his contract, and there’s little doubt the team at some point in the next 12 months will lock him up for a lucrative long-term deal.
Long snapper Josh Harris improved in his second year with the team. He had some early season struggles, but started to play better as the year progressed. Hopefully in his third year with the team he can eliminate all of the issues he’s had and have a clean, quiet year where he isn’t noticeable, which is exactly what a long snapper should be.
The only significant issue for the Falcons on special teams is upgrading the return game. Jacquizz Rodgers handled kickoffs for most of last year until an injury sidelined him late. The Falcons plugged Jason Snelling into the role largely because they didn’t have a better alternative. Perhaps they did in Robert Alford, but with him logging starting reps on defense, the Falcons weren’t going to risk injury to him. Rodgers is a capable and consistent kickoff returner, but the Falcons certainly have room to get better with a much more explosive option.
The team did seemingly find an option on punt returns in Robert McClain towards the end of last year. That was after Harry Douglas and Alford failed to impress in that role. However, if McClain is expected to be the team’s primary nickel cornerback in 2014, he too may become exposed to extra injury risk if asked to be the team’s full-time punt returner.
Thus it makes sense for the Falcons to try and add another return threat this offseason. It would be doubtful that the team would sign a veteran free agent for the express purposes of filling those roles since Rodgers and McClain are capable, just not ideal options given their value on offense and defense. Instead, it’s more plausible that the team will look to the draft or undrafted free agency to bolster the position. If the team is successful in addressing their depth at running back or wide receiver, then it’s possible that player could double as a return threat. But the likelier scenario is that the team continues what it’s done in recent years, which is target undrafted free agents with return experience and hope one emerges in training camp to become a serious challenger for the job.
Whether at kicker or in the return game, any serious changes or additions this offseason on special teams are likely to come in undrafted free agency. And that’s the privilege the Falcons have given that relative to other areas on the roster, special team is position of a strength.