Editor’s note: This is the fourth of an eight-part position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before they report for training camp. The rookies report Tuesday and the veterans July 26.
FLOWERY BRANCH – Special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams has some grand plans to improve the Falcons’ units, which finished ranked 23rd overall for the 2022 season in the annual special-teams rankings compiled by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin.
The special teams feature kicker Younghoe Koo, returners Cordarrelle Patterson and Avery Williams and top tackler in fullback Keith Smith.
Koo, arguably the Falcons’ MVP over the past two seasons, signed a five-year, $24.25 million contract in March.
Koo, who played at Georgia Southern, was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 2020 season. He has made 87 of 94 field-goal attempts (92.6%) since he signed with the Falcons in Week 10 of the 2019 season.
Koo has been clutch with games on the line, as he’s made 20 of 23 field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime in 30 games with the Falcons. He helped the Falcons reach a 7-10 record last season with three game-winning kicks.
Patterson was re-signed in free agency. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler as a returner, but was needed more to power the offense at running back and wide receiver last season.
Williams was solid as the main punt returner.
Pro Bowl long snapper Josh Harris was lost in free agency to the Chargers, and veteran punter Bradley Pinion signed late in the offseason. He’ll compete with undrafted rookie Seth Vernon.
Pinion, who played at Clemson and has been with the 49ers and the Bucs, averaged 42.5 yards per punt last season. He has a career average of 43.7.
Liam McCullough is the lone long snapper on the roster. The Falcons also signed veteran long snapper Beau Brinkley, but he was placed on injured reserve.
All of the positions on the coverage units are open.
“We’re evaluating everything,” Marquice Williams said. “There are a lot of variables. It’s not just what they can do on the field, but how they go about their business off the field. Their mindset. Their attitude. How they approach the game.”
The Falcons are hoping that some of the rookies can contribute immediately on special teams, as safety Richie Grant, cornerback Darren Hall and linebackers Ade Ogundeji and linebacker Dorian Etheridge did last season.
Speedy linebackers Arnold Ebiketie, Troy Andersen and DeAngelo Malone and running back Tyler Allgeier will get a chance to help the units as rookies. Also, guard Justin Shaffer and tight end John FitzPatrick could find blocking jobs on the punt and field-goal teams.
“Everybody on our roster from the day after we drafted our players, AK (Ebiketie), DeAngelo, Troy and even Tyler Allgeier, all of those guys, from Day 1, they’re coming in, we’re going to have everybody helping special teams,” Williams said. “Everybody on this roster is going to help with special teams, somehow, someway.”
FitzPatrick and Shaffer could be extra blockers. Rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder received some work as the holder for field-goal attempts.
“They can make their role as big or as small as they want it to be,” Williams said. “Every single person on this team understands the importance of all three phases, not just special teams. Special teams is as important as offense, as important as defense, on whatever that down is at that particular time.”
The rookies will get a chance to aid the coverage units, which were led by Smith’s eight tackles last season. Harris, linebacker Mykal Walker and Avery Williams all had seven tackles, and Grant had six.
“We’re excited for those guys because they have a lot of different tools, and they have the right mindset to come in and help us,” Marquice Williams said.
Blocking on the return units will be stressed and can help the younger players when they get on the field on defense or offense.
“It’s no different than if we get an interception,” Williams said. “If AJ gets an interception, Troy would use the same (blocking) technique that he would on a punt return … so, it goes hand in hand as a great opportunity to work.”
Williams said he will stress teaching the basic fundamentals of catching, blocking, tackling and getting off blocks. He was pleased with the offseason work in OTAs and the minicamps.
“They (did) a great job of working on those fundamentals,” Williams said.
The special teams will not become firm until the Falcons get down to the 53-man roster.
“Special teams, every year you’re going to get a bunch of new faces in the (meeting) room,” Williams said. “It’s refreshing, and it’s beneficial because it gives opportunities for a lot of players. We’re trying to help them find evidence of how they should be on this team, why they should be part of the 53-man roster.
“It’s our job as coaches to give them those tools, put them in the best position possible to help this team win. So, I think it’s a great opportunity for every single person in the room, whether they’ve been here for four years or if they’re brand new to the team. It’s an opportunity for them to put their best foot forward and help us win.”
- Staff writer John Riker contributed to this article.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.