Editor’s note: This is the first of a 10-part position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons’ roster heading into training camp.
The Falcons’ special teams will undergo a huge makeover under new coordinator Ben Kotwica, highlighted by kicker Giorgio Tavecchio replacing veteran Matt Bryant.
Tavecchio made all five of his field-goal attempts in part-time duty with the Falcons last season, including 50 and 56-yarders in a 23-20 victory over the Giants. The 28-year-old will now take over full-time duties replacing the 44-year-old Bryant, who had 250 field goals in 10 seasons with the Falcons.
Punter Matt Bosher returns while Kotwica will rebuild the coverage units and look to add some explosiveness to the kickoff and punt returns.
“My take is, this is a good group,” Kotwica told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think the energy that (head coach Dan Quinn) is looking for and that we are looking for, they are bringing it. That consistency is very, very encouraging.”
The Falcons hope to end a pair of lenghty return droughts this season. The last punt return for a touchdown? Devin Hester in 2014.
The last kickoff return for a TD? Eric Weems in 2010, 132 regular-season games ago.
“We’d like to be dynamic and explosive in our return game,” Kotwica said. “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 career 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.”
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.
Who’s returning: Tavecchio, who was the injury replacement and backup kicker last season, will take over the main job. Bosher is set to enter his ninth season in the league. He averaged 45.5 yards per punt last season. Linebacker Kemal Ishmael, who was second on the team with 11 special teams tackles, is back. Both linebacker Bruce Carter and wide receiver Russell Gage made an impact with seven special teams tackles last season. Long snapper Josh Harris, who had his 2018 season cut short by a hip/groin injury, returns for his eighth season.
Who’s gone: Bryant, leading special teams tackler Justin Bethel and Hall were not re-signed.
Roster competitions: The competition for the punt and kickoff return jobs will be intense. Green and Barner are the leading candidates.
Position-by-position series: July 8: Special teams | July 9: Safeties | July 10: Cornerbacks | July 11: Linebackers | July 12: Defensive line | July 13: Quarterbacks |July 14: Offensive line | July 15: Wide receivers | July 16: Tight ends | July 17: Running backs