Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster after their offseason program.
With the kicking and punting operations in good shape with Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher, the Falcons sought to improve their special teams units over the offseason.
The Falcons, who report to training camp on July 26, hope they landed a dynamic coverage duo in veteran Justin Bethel and rookie Russell Gage.
“One thing is that you are bringing speed that is coming off the edge,” Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said. “(Bethel’s) a veteran who’s has leadership and has film that demonstrates that he can go and make plays. That’s big.”
Bethel, who played at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, is a three-time special teams Pro Bowler. He played five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. He signed a one-year, $1.7 million contract with a $400,000 signing bonus with the Falcons.
Gage, who played at LSU, was drafted in the sixth round.
“Then you take a guy like Russell Gage and you put that speed on the other side,” Armstrong said. “Now, you’ve got two gunners that people have to think about putting a (two-man) vice on both sides. It’s huge to have that speed outside.”
Overall, the Falcons’ special teams were sub-standard last season. They finished in the bottom half of the league (22nd) in Rick Gosselin’s industry leading rankings.
The kickoff coverage unit gave up 26.2 yards per return, which ranked 32nd (last) in the league.
“When I came in and I was talking to Keith and (assistant special teams coach) Mayur (Chaudhari), they kind of told me that if we are bringing you in here we want you to take that leadership role from what you’ve done,” Bethel said. “Go out there and show guys how to do what you’ve been doing over the years. I plan on doing that.”
Bethel has 88 career special teams tackles, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He also has blocked three field goals and an extra point. He returned one of those blocked field goals 82 yards for a touchdown in a 2016 game against Chicago.
Bethel, 27, is listed at 6-foot and 200 pounds. He’s played in 96 games with 14 starts at cornerback. He has four career interceptions and 116 tackles.
“I plan on being able to come in and make key and major plays on special teams and changing outcomes of the game,” Bethel said.
The Falcons are working on their plan for the new kickoff return rule, which includes no running starts and fewer multiple blocking situations.
“They are trying to stop concussions and all that stuff,” Bethel said. “The league and the NFLPA did what they had to do to get the rules (passed). We’ve been practicing under the new guidelines and we are going to do the best that we can with it.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn believes the rule will take the bigger players off the kickoff and kickoff return teams with smaller and faster players replacing them. We may see teams keep more wide receivers and defensive backs active for the 45-man game day rosters.
“You don’t get a running start, so really you only get the one yard for your take off,” Quinn said. “You don’t get to time it up anymore with the kicker. That always took some time to work that part out. Now, it’s right from a standing start.”
The Falcons must also find a new kickoff and punt returner.
Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis are the front runners. The Falcons also looked at rookies Isaiah Oliver, Ito Smith and Calvin Ridley over the offseason.
Last season’s returner, Andre Roberts, was not re-signed. He landed with the New York Jets.
Bryant, 43, signed a three-year, $10.5 million deal that runs through the 2020 season.
In 2017, Bryant was a perfect 38 of 38 on extra points and 39 of 44 on field goals, including going 10 of 11 on field goal attempts over 50 yards.
Bosher averaged 44.9 yards on 53 punts with a net average of 40.8 yards. He placed 19 punts down inside the 20-yard line.
Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:
Part 1: Defensive Line
Part 2: Linebackers
Part 3: Cornerbacks
Part 4: Safeties
Coming Monday: Quarterbacks
Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 18, Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Reggie Davis, 86 Lamar Jordan, 16 Taj Williams
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill
LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas
C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 J.C. Hassenauer
RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 62 Salesi Uhatafe
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray, 80 Troy Mangen, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Christian Blake, 19 Dontez Byrd, 7 Devin Gray
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett, 6 Kurt Benkert
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 41 Terrence Magee, 32 Justin Crawford, 35 Malik Williams
FB 40 Daniel Marx, 43 Luke McNitt, 30 Ricky Ortiz
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 96 Mackendy Cheridor
DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Garrison Smith,
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer, 99 Jon Cunningham
DE 44 Vic Beasley, 90 Derrick Shelby, 55 J’Terius Jones
WLB 42 Duke Riley, 54 Foyesade Oluokun
MLB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe, 53 Emmanuel Smith
SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 56 Anthony Winbush, 49 Richard Jarvis
CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 28 Justin Bethel, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden, 43 Chris Lammons
NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 42 Tyson Graham, 30 Joseph Putu
FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch, 41 Jason Hall
SS 22 Keanu Neal, Ron Parker, 35 Secdrick Cooper
K 3 Matt Bryant, 1 David Marvin
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall, 30 Ito Smith
PR 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher