Countdown to Camp: Special teams need major overhaul

Falcons punter Sterling Hofrichter was drafted in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL draft.
Falcons punter Sterling Hofrichter was drafted in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL draft.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Editor’s note: Leading to the start of NFL training camp, we’ll take a look at the Falcons’ coaching staff and position groups. Rookies reported Tuesday. QBs and injured veterans can report Thursday and the rest of the veterans July 28. Today: Special teams

The Falcons’ special teams, which finished 30th of 32 NFL teams last season, need a major overhaul.

Special-teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, who’s in his second season with the team, must fix the punting problems and eliminate the penalties that hurt the team’s ranking in 2019.

The Falcons ranked 30th in punting and net punting and 31st in special-teams penalties.

The special-teams rankings were compiled by Rick Gosselin, the longtime sportswriter and Pro Football Hall of Fame voter who ranks teams in 22 categories from 32 (worst) to 1 (best). This was the 41st year for Gosselin’s ratings.

The Falcons ranked first in takeaways with five and second in points scored with 12.

The Falcons believe they fixed their punting issues by drafting Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round. He will have to beat out Ryan Allen, who was steady after Matt Bosher was injured and the team rolled through a series of punters last season.

“I’ve always loved competition growing up,” Hofrichter said. “I’ve always felt like it made me a better punter. You’re always going to have competition in the NFL.”

The Falcons have raved about Hofrichter’s quick motion to get his punts off and his hang time. If he can do that at the NFL level, that would help the coverage units.

“Very good operation time,” Kotwica said. “He’s very efficient. He has the ability to catch, move the football and deliver it quickly, which is important.”

The Falcons have high hopes for Hofrichter.

“He’s got excellent directional ability,” Kotwica said. “He’s familiar from playing in the (Carrier) Dome up there in Syracuse. We are going to play at least here inside and then you add in New Orleans, obviously. He’s got experience with hitting in a dome.”

Hofrichter averaged more than 43 yards a punt over his career.

“Another thing that really popped out is that he minimizes the return yards of the opponent,” Kotwica said. “I think last year he only let out 25, 26 total yards in returns. So, when you take into account the things that he (brings) to the table, the ability to get the ball off quickly, minimize return yards whether it’s through direction or hangtime.”

Allen, 30, punted in eight games last season and average 41.9 yards per punt for the Falcons. He punted six seasons for New England before joining the Falcons in 2019.

“Ryan did a nice job for us last year,” Kotwica said. “We’ll see how it shakes out. They’ll get ample reps, and we’ll move forward from there.”

The Falcons also picked up linebacker Mykal Walker (119th overall) and safety Jaylinn Hawkins (134th) in the fourth round of the draft. They are counting on them, who have speed and good tackling reputations, to help on special teams.

“We feel that we’ve acquired some assets to move in the right direction and improve,” Kotwica said.

Also, the Falcons did not re-sign returner Kenjon Barner and will have an open competition. Wide receivers Brandon Powell, Olamide Zaccheaus and Chris Rowland are the main candidates.

Barner a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown against Carolina. It was the Falcons’ first return for a touchdown since the 2014 season.

“Right now Powell is the leader in the clubhouse as the returner,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “O.Z. (Olamide Zaccheaus) is definitely somebody we trained at in that space as well.”

Powell returned both punts and kickoffs in college at Florida. Most of Zaccheaus’ work has been at punt returner.

“We acquired Chris Rowland, who is an outstanding young man,” Kotwica said of the undrafted rookie from Tennessee State. “We were really fortunate enough to acquire him after the draft. You are talking about a player who averaged just over 12 yards a return. He’s done both. He had a touchdown last year. He had a 25-yard return average in the kickoff return game. We have some options there. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Younghoe Koo was added midseason after Matt Bryant started missing field-goal attempts and a key extra-point attempt at Arizona.

Koo made 23 of 26 field-goal attempts, including a long of 50 yards last season. He made 15 of 16 extra-point tries.

Koo also handled the kickoffs. On his 50 kickoffs, 27 went for touchbacks.

The Falcons indicated that they would bring in competition for Koo, but elected to move in another direction over the offseason.

“He did a nice job,” Kotwica said. “We did feel that at the completion of last year that it was important to bring in another guy. We haven’t made that (decision). We are in different times now. We are not on the field yet. If the opportunity presents itself, yes, we’d like to bring in another guy to compete, just to make sure that position is solidified when we start playing.”

Falcons 2019 special-teams rankings:

Kick Return 12

Punt Return 15

Kickoff coverage 16

Punt coverage 14

Starting point 26

Opponent starting point 18

Punting 30

Net punting 30

Inside the 20 punts 25

Opponent punting 28

Oponent net punting 24

Field goals 3

FG percentage 17

Opponent FG % 28

XP % 21

Points scored 2

Points allowed 16

Blocked kicks 14

Opponent blocked kicks 18

Takeaways 1

Giveaways 23

Penalties 31

(Rankings provided by Rick Gosselin, Talk of Fame Network)

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