Atlanta is returning their specialist group from 2022, and that’s a wise decision.
The Falcons didn’t need to radically transform their special teams after a terrific 2022 season for that group, and wisely, they did not.
With the draft over and free agency far behind us, Atlanta’s plan was essentially to run it back. They had Younghoe Koo under contract at kicker already, brought back punter Bradley Pinion and long snapper Liam McCullough, and appear set to roll ahead with some combination of Avery Williams and Cordarrelle Patterson handling returns again. Their coverage unit will inevitably look a bit different, but they did bring back a top-shelf gunner in KhaDarel Hodge.
For that reason alone, this review won’t look drastically different than the one I did back in January. It’s still worth a moment to look at what the Falcons have put together here, a group that is likely underrated given their 2022 impact and potential 2023 impact.
Kicker: Younghoe Koo
The Falcons love Younghoe Koo, and why not? Besides swapping out his No. 7 for No. 6 to give that legendary digit to Bijan Robinson, there has been no change for one of the league’s better kickers. Still under 30 years old, boasting the second-best field goal conversion percentage in NFL history, and having put together another quality (if lackluster by his standards) season, Koo is nails. He can handle kickoffs and is a wizard at onside kicks if called upon to be, but in 2023 Koo will continue to do what he does best: Score.
Punter: Bradley Pinion
The Falcons brought Pinion back because he finished the year strong and put together a fine season. He was solid-to-good handling kickoffs, but his situational punting was good-to-excellent, as Pinion frequently pinned opposing offenses deep to help out a shaky defense. The limited damage opposing returners did against this team were in large part owing to how good Pinion was at that aspect of punting and kickoffs, and it was a marked improvement over 2021, where long returns haunted Atlanta more than once.
Pinion has never been worse than solid at the NFL level, and if he’s in the same neighborhood as he was a year ago for Atlanta, they’ll be thrilled.
Long snapper: Liam McCullough
Josh Harris was terrific for a long, long time in Atlanta, as is evinced by the fact that you more or less have to bring him up when discussing the situation McCullough was stepping into. An unproven option brought over after the Raiders let him go, McCullough endured some early jitters but settled in to do fine, reliable work as the team’s long snapper, which is all you can ever ask of your long snapper.
As was the case with Pinion, the Falcons prioritized bringing him back. Young and obviously capable of handling the gig, McCullough can turn in a quality 2023 and earn a long-term deal.
Kick returners: Cordarrelle Patterson, Avery Williams
With a diminshed role on offense likely ahead of him, Patterson should get more work as a kick returner. He was stellar this past year in very limited opportunities, with one of his nine returns going for 103 yards and a record-setting touchdown. Patterson is one of the best ever to do it, and the Falcons will keep letting him do it.
Williams was solid but unspectacular as a kick returner a year ago, but he has the potential to be much more than that and is always dangerous with the ball in his hands. Expect him split returns something like 60/40 with Patterson, with Williams commanding the bulk of kick returns.
Punt returner: Avery Williams
You could make a reasonable case that he was the best punt returner in the NFL a year ago. Shifty and electric, Williams at times outright embarrassed teams trying to deal with him to the tune of an NFL-best 16.2 yards per punt return, had he enough returns to qualify for the leaderboard. Considering he was also tremendous at punt returns in college, Williams can probably be even better, and he’ll lock down this spot in 2022 alongside a role as a receiver and runner on offense.
The Falcons brought back their core specialists and Hodge, added capable special teamers like linebacker Tae Davis and cornerback Mike Hughes, and brought in young players via the draft who are capable of stepping into roles on special teams immediately. Considering Marquice Williams is one of the better special teams coaches in football and considering that the Falcons were excellent in this phase of the game last year, it’s very reasonable to expect that special teams will once again be a team strength.
In 2022, that was necessary to keep the Falcons afloat, because the offense stalled out in the red zone too often and the defense couldn’t do much with short fields. In 2023, when both sides of the ball seem poised to make strides both minor and major, special teams will fade into the background a bit but will be no less vital for a team that fancies itself a contender. The Falcons haven’t been this good on special teams since Keith Armstrong and Matt Bryant were at the height of their powers, and we ought to enjoy it while it lasts.