Mixed results lead to questions with Falcons’ special teams

Atlanta Falcons punter Sterling Hofrichter (4) punts during the first half against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Saints won 21-16. (Danny Karnik/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Falcons punter Sterling Hofrichter (4) punts during the first half against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Saints won 21-16. (Danny Karnik/AP)

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series looking at Falcons position groups going into the offseason.

In an otherwise 2020 tumultuous season, one of the more consistent Falcons players was someone the team first turned to in the second half of the 2019 season. Back then, Younghoe Koo was tasked with replacing legendary place-kicker Matt Bryant, who was cut at the midpoint of what would be his final year.

It’s tough to replace a local legend. But Koo did just that, becoming a fan favorite of his own rather quickly. After making 23 of 26 field-goal attempts in the final eight games of the 2019 season, Koo missed only two attempts this season.

Although the Falcons’ special teams struggled in other areas, place-kicker rarely was a worry. With that in mind, here’s an early look at where things stand with the Falcons’ special teams entering the offseason.

Contracts expiring: Koo will be an exclusive-rights free agent in 2021, which means that as long as the Falcons want him, he will sign a $750,000 contract and remain with the franchise. You can bet the Falcons will ensure Koo is with the team moving forward after the season he put in.

Still under contract: Long snapper Josh Harris will enter the final season of a three-year deal he signed before the 2019 season, valued at $3.135 million. Harris’ cap hit for next season is $1.075 million, making it unlikely that he is in danger of being a cap casualty. Harris is a high-value member of this team.

Punter Sterling Hofrichter will enter the second year of his rookie contract. Hofrichter was selected in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL draft by the previous regime. Given his late-round status and the fact a new regime is coming to town, there is no guarantee the Falcons keep him. In addition, the Falcons are hanging onto place-kicker Elliott Fry for the time being, as he signed a reserve/futures deal shortly after the season ended.

Fry spent the majority of the season on the Falcons’ practice squad after filling in for an injured Koo during the Falcons’ loss to the Green Bay Packers.

2020 performance: The special-teams phase was quite the mixed bag for the Falcons throughout the season. After five games, the Falcons not only fired coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but also parted ways with special-teams coordinator Ben Kotwica. The most memorable moment on special teams during the first five games came in Week 2, when the Dallas Cowboys recovered an onside kick as multiple Falcons players watched the ball roll for more than 10 yards without attempting to recover it. Beginning in Week 6, the Falcons turned to assistant Bernie Parmalee to coordinate the unit, with Sports Illustrated ranking the team 22nd in the NFL in special teams.

Receiver Brandon Powell handled return duties for most of the season, ranking 21st in the NFL in kickoff return yards, with 343, and 18th in punt return yards, with 152. The Falcons did not score a return touchdown this season.

When it came to punting, Hofrichter averaged only 42.5 yards per punt, which ranked 30th in the NFL. More important, he held a net average of 39.3, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. His long of 57 yards ranked 34th in the NFL. However, this seems to be by design, as the Falcons’ strategy placed a greater emphasis on forcing fair catches than on the distances of punts. Although Hofrichter didn’t kick with great distance, his punts allowed for a total of only 142 return yards, an average of 5.5 yards per return.

When it comes to place-kicker, the Falcons’ new staff surely will be happy with where things stand with Koo. Koo made 37 of 39 field-goal attempts and 33 of 36 extra-point attempts in a season that culminated with a Pro Bowl berth. Koo made all eight of his field-goal tries from 50 yards and longer.

Offseason outlook: Koo and Harris more than likely are staying put. It would be a stunning turn for the new coaching staff to take a chance elsewhere on two players who were consistent throughout the 2020 season. As for Hofrichter, it’s highly probable he’s given a chance to keep his spot, but with some competition joining the fold during the offseason. Much of that will have to do with who is hired to be the Falcons’ special-teams coordinator and how his philosophy meshes with the new coach.

2021 draft options: It’s unlikely the Falcons draft a specialist. The Falcons have two place-kickers on the roster but could theoretically swap Fry for an undrafted camp body if they choose that path. At this month’s Senior Bowl, teams will get a chance to scout Miami’s Jose Borregales and Memphis’ Riley Patterson at place-kicker. More important for the Falcons, they’ll get the opportunity to look at the two punters attending, Kentucky’s Max Duffy and Cincinnati’s James Smith.

Conclusion: The Falcons are set at place-kicker and long snapper. It remains to be seen what the new staff decides when it comes to punting strategy. That decision could factor into whether Hofrichter is on the roster in 2021.

Previous stories in this series

Falcons’ defensive line needs better sack production in 2021

Falcons linebackers offered stability on struggling defense

Next staff will have some retooling to do in secondary