Injured Atlanta Falcons seventh round draft pick running back Marcus Green, who has a hamstring, watches over rookie minicamp practice Saturday, May 11, 2019, in Flowery Branch.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Cover 9@9: Kotwica looking to spice up return game 

Good morning! Welcome to the Cover 9@9 blog. It’s our weekly list of nine things at 9 a.m. Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons.

1. CAN GREEN SPICE UP RETURN GAME: It’s been a long time since the Falcons returned a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown.

Devin Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown Sept. 18, 2014, in a, 56-14, rout of Tampa Bay to help the team improve to 2-1 on the season. That was 77 regular-season games ago.

Eric Weems returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown Dec. 4, 2010, against Tampa Bay in a key late-season 28-24 victory. That was 132 games ago.

New special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica has been charged adding some pop to the Falcons’ return game. 

“We’d like to be dynamic and explosive in our return game,” Kotwica told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve got a couple of return options that have caught my eye. We’ll see how it all shakes out going forward.”

Last season, Justin Hardy (punts) and Marvin Hall (kickoffs) didn’t strike much fear into the opposition’s coverage units. Hardy didn’t catch punts in the open OTA workouts nor during the minicamp. Hall was not re-signed and landed with Chicago. 

The Falcons signed veteran running back Kenjon Barner and drafted running back/wide receiver Marcus Green. 

Barner, who’s 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, has 37 NFL punt returns for 288 yards (7.8 yards per return) and no touchdowns. He has 31 kickoff returns for 718 yards (23.2 yards per return) and no touchdowns.

Green, who had a hamstring injury for much of the offseason, tied for the FBS lead with four kickoff-return touchdowns and also returned a punt for a touchdown.

“It’s very important (to bring the return game back to life),” Kotwica said. “I think the way the game is structured especially in the punt return side, especially if you’re able to get them stopped with good defense and field position, that’s the area where you can do a good amount of damage.”

It seems like the Falcons are going to give Green a chance to beat out the veteran. 

“Kenjon has done an excellent job,” Kotwica said. “A really good job of catching and securing the football, both in the punt and kickoff return game. The young guy Marcus was injured there early. He’s done a nice job of coming back, getting his legs back under him and then there are other guys out there that have done a good job with ball security.”

Ball security in the exhibition season will be key. 

“Even though we want to be explosive and dynamic, first and foremost when we talk about a pillar of the program, it’s securing the ball,” Kotwica said. “That’s been encouraging.”

2. BARNER GETS SECOND RING: Barner unexpectedly received a Super Bowl ring from the New England Patriots for his contributions to the team last season.

He split last season between New England and Carolina. He played five games for the Patriots and rushed 19 times for 71 yards. He was cut on three different occasions before landing with the Panthers.

He signed with the Falcons in March. 

For Barner, it was his second straight Super Bowl ring. He was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles team that won Super Bowl LI.

 Just want to send out a huge thank you to everyone at the @patriots organization again for the opportunity that was given!” Barner wrote in an instagram post. “Wasn’t expecting this when I got the call and still wasn’t expecting it when the ring was In My hands! Thank you Thank you Thank you, God is good! #Back2Back #2X”

Also, Barner posted a video giving his new Super Bowl ring  as a gift to his father .

Singer Carrie Underwood is set to film the Sunday Night Football intro at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Photo: Kris Connor/Getty Images

3. UNDERWOOD TO FILM AT THE BENZ:  Carrie Underwood will soon visit Mercedes-Benz Stadium to film the opening segment of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” according to the AJC’s Melissa Ruggieri who writes the Atlanta Music Scene Blog. 

This is the first time in the series’ 14 seasons that the open will be staged inside a venue.

Underwood will perform on the stadium’s field and be accompanied by NFL stars as she performs the “Sunday Night Football” theme. She’s handled the weekly theme song since 2013. 

4. FALCONS CHEER CAMP: The Falcons will hold a youth spirit camp for boys and girls ages 6 through 12 at Rhodes Morgan Park from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday, July 13, which will be hosted by the Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders.

Registration is $75. Click here for more information.

5. ATLANTA’S ROLE IN NFL’s GROWTH:  Atlanta native Rankin Smith paid $8.5 million for the expansion Falcons in 1965. They began play at Atlanta Stadium in 1966. Arthur Blank bought the team for $545 million in 2002. Forbes valued Atlanta’s franchise at nearly $3 billion in 2018.

6. HALL OF FAME GEAR:  Former Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez recently donated several artifacts from his career to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Gonzalez, the NFL’s all-time leading receiver among tight ends, is set to be enshrined Aug. 3. 

Many of Gonzalez’s artifacts will be showcased in the Class of 2019 Locker Exhibit which is slated to open soon. The exhibit will feature lockers containing mementos from the careers of the class members, that also includes Champ Bailey, Pat Bowlen, Gil Brandt, Ty Law, Kevin Mawae, Ed Reed and Johnny Robinson.

Some of Tony Gonzalez's Falcons gear has been donated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

7. TRAINING CAMP OPEN PRACTICES: The Falcons are set to have only eight open practices for training camp, the lowest total of teams in the NFC South, excluding the Saints, who will announce their training camp schedule in July.

The Panthers will have 14 free and open practices for their fans, while the Buccaneers will have 11. The Saints had 10 last season, which was down from the 20 they had in 2010.

Around the league, the Broncos will have 19 open practices, double with the Falcons have even though they are both playing in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 1. 

The Packers, Colts and Vikings will have 16 open practices, Browns, Cowboys, Panthers, Ravens and Steelers have 15, Cardinals and Ravens 14, Chargers 13, Seahawks 12, Giants and Bengals 10, Bears 9, Bills 8 (down from 21 in 2014), Rams seven, Jets five and Eagles will have one.

8. FALCONS NEED TO ADD MORE OPEN PRACTICE DATES:  The Falcons, who are trying to building a bigger fan base, should follow the lead of the Broncos, Packers, Vikings and Cowboys, who all have double the amount of open practices than the Falcons. 

Denver plays in the Hall of Fame game, but still found a way to schedule a league-high 19 open practices. 

The rookies are scheduled to report on Thursday, July 18  and the veterans on Sunday, July 21 for training camp. The first training camp practice will be held on Monday, July 22.The Falcons open the exhibition season Thursday, Aug. 1 when they play the Denver Broncos in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.

TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE 

Monday, July 22 

Practice: 9:35 a.m.

OPEN - Gates: 8:30 a.m.

Tuesday, July 23 

Practice: 9:35 a.m.

OPEN - Gates: 8:30 a.m.

Wednesday, July 24 

Practice: 9:35 AM

OPEN - Gates: 8:30 a.m.

Thursday, July 25 

Practice: 9:35 AM

OPEN - Gates: 8:30 a.m.

Friday, July 26 

NO PRACTICE

Saturday, July 27 

Practice: 9:35 a.m.

OPEN - Gates: 8 a.m.

Sunday, July 28 

Practice: 9:35 a.m.

OPEN - Gates: 8 a.m.

Monday, July 29 

Practice: 9:35 a.m.

OPEN - Gates: 8:30 a.m.

Sunday, Aug. 4 | Military Appreciation Day at Mercedes-Benz Stadium 

Practice: 12:30 p.m.

OPEN - Gates: 10 a.m.

9. DEPTH CHART: Kotwica has been studying the back of the roster as he’s looking for some players to step forward for the special teams units. 

“This is a good group,” Kotwica said. “I think the energy that (Dan Quinn) is looking for and that we are looking for, they are bringing it.”

Here’s a look at the depth chart: 

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 14, Justin Hardy, 83 Russell Gage, 13 Christian Blake, 16 Shawn Bane 

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 73 Matt Gono, 75 John Wetzel, 69 Lanard Bonner, 65 Jaelin Robinson 

LG 77 James Carpenter, 60 Adam Gettis, 73 Matt Gono 

C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer 61 Chandler Miller

RG 68 Jamon Brown, 63 Chris Lindstrom, 64 Sean Harlow

RT 74 Ty Sambrailo, 76 Kaleb McGary, 67 Devon Johnson

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 88 Luke Stocker, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 87 Jaeden Graham, 89 Alex Gray

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Calvin Ridley, 15 Devin Gray, 19 Kahlil Lewis, 7 C.J. Worton, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus

Q B 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 6 Kurt Benkert

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 23 Brian Hill, 32 Qadree Ollison, 38 Kenjon Barner, 30 Tony Brooks-James, 43 Marcus Green

FB 30 Ricky Ortiz, 88 Luke Stocker, 87 Jaeden Graham

DEFENSE

DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 91 Chris Odom

DT 95 Jack Crawford, 96 Tyeler Davison, 94 Deadrin Senat, 50 John Cominsky, 77 Ra’Shede Hageman, 93 Michael Bennett

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 92 Justin Zimmer

DE 98 Takk McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 50 John Cominsky

WLB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 42 Duke Riley, 52 Yurik Bethune

MLB 45 Deion Jones, 55 Bruce Carter, 49 Tre Crawford, 46 Del’Shawn Phillips

SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 53 Jermaine Grace, 48 Durrant Miles

CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 23 Jayson Stanley

NCB 27 Damontae Kazee, 28 Jordan Miller

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 39 Taveze Calhoun, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 32 Rashard Causey

FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman, 34 Chris Cooper, 35 Jason Thompson, 43 Parker Baldwin

SS 22 Keanu Neal, 37 J.J. Wilcox, 40 Ryan Neal 

SPECIALIST 

K 4 Giorgio Tavecchio

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 38 Kenjon Barner, 18 Calvin Ridley

PR 38 Kenyon Barner, 3 Marcus Green, 16 Shawn Bane 

L S 47 Josh Harris, 48 Kyle Vasey

H 5 Matt Bosher 

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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