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Breaking down how Falcons special teams have changed in 2024

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By: Dave Choate

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta would like special teams to be a strength again in 2023, and they’ll rely on familiar faces and a couple of key new additions.

Younghoe Koo missed a couple of crucial field goals. Bradley Pinion was not quite as great at pinning teams deep. The coverage units suffered from a handful of frustrating, costly lapses. The return game was…well, let’s not even bother.

Special teams has been a core Falcons team strength for a long time now, with the first two years under coordinator Marquice Williams proving to be excellent before last year’s vague disappointment. The Falcons clearly took note of that shakiness heading into 2024.

Williams was retained and his fingerprints are still all over this special teams group, with specialists returning and a renewed focus on adding players to help shore up the team’s return and coverage weaknesses in 2023. To kick off our series breaking down how position groups have changed thanks to the 2024 offseason, we’ll touch on special teams today.

Kicker: No change

Younghoe Koo is going nowhere at the moment, even if his last two seasons have represented a pullback from the heights of 2020 and 2021. That has been heavily driven by erratic results from 50-plus yards, as Koo was 12/13 between ‘20-’21 and is 10/17 over the past two seasons. Over the past two years, he has been nails inside 50 with just three misses on 47 tries compared to three misses on 51 tries over the previous two years, and that reliability is what the Falcons have come to value.

Whether the Falcons prove more hesitant to put the game on Koo’s leg in a pressure-packed situation beyond 50 yards remains to be seen, but otherwise Koo will continue to operate as one of the more trusted and steady kickers in the game. Minus any further erosion in that reliability, I’ll circle back to what I said before and note that Koo is a Falcon and will remain a Falcon.

Punter: A contender added

I don’t think Bradley Pinion is going to be supplanted by undrafted free agent and former Texas punter Ryan Sanborn, but Sanborn will at least make a summer push fresh off a strong 2023 that saw him average nearly 46 yards per punt. If Sanford is stellar and the Falcons like what they see, perhaps he pulls off the shocker.

If not, Pinion will continue to be what he has been for Atlanta, which is a low-variance option who does his best work when he can pin teams deep, and will very occasionally shank one or boom one beyond the range you thought him capable of. The fact that he’s perfectly solid and generally avoids giving teams favorable field position—even if he wasn’t quite as good at that in 2023 as he was in 2022—makes him someone the team will feel perfectly fine relying upon unless Sanborn excels.

Long snapper: No change

It’s still the Liam McCullough show, and with good reason, given that McCullough has proven to be an extremely reliable long snapper and capable tackler on special teams. He’ll be here for a long while yet if he keeps up his current level of play.

Returners: Major competition added

Last year, Avery Williams got hurt and the Falcons struggled to put a quality return game on the field, especially when Cordarrelle Patterson wasn’t healthy. This year, things have changed dramatically, and there’s really nowhere to go but up.

On the kick return side, the Falcons have subtracted Patterson and added Ray-Ray McCloud, who averaged a solid 22.5 yards per kick return. McCloud also was 19th in the NFL in punt return average last year, well above Mike Hughes in that regard, and offers a versatile return option for Atlanta. The team also added Isaiah Wooden in undrafted free agency, and he’s an intriguing playmaker with electric speed and agility, and recent signing Dylan Drummond also has a college resume as a returner. Hughes is also an option of resort, should the Falcons need it, but this is likely to be McCloud’s gig with Williams and perhaps Wooden mixing in, if Wooden makes the roster. We’ll see how new kickoff rules impact this competition—will they give Bijan Robinson a shot?—but that’s my working expectation.

If Williams is healthy, he’s the punt returner, given that he was arguably the league’s best option in 2022. McCloud is a nice fallback option there, Dee Alford proved last year he can be a quality punt returner if needed, and Hughes is again a player the Falcons can turn to if they exhaust other options. Either way, the Falcons have more and better options at both returner spots than they did a year ago, which is an underrated improvement for a team that frequently lost the field position battle in 2023.

Other additions

  • Charlie Woerner. The team’s presumptive #2 tight end is an excellent blocker and was a core special teamer for the 49ers, as he was among the team leaders in snaps there and in tackles throughout his tenure in San Francisco. He’ll be a nice addition on offense for his blocking ability, but chances are Marquice Williams will also love what he brings to the table on returns.
  • JD Bertrand. The rookie was a Notre Dame special teams standout in limited work—by the end of his career, he was a full-time starter on defense, after all—and is a canny, capable tackler. That will conspire to give him an immediate special teams role, especially because he won’t be sniffing a starting spot in year one without an injury in Atlanta.
  • Ross Dwelley. Another signing with special teams in mind, Dwelley was a beloved 49er and potential third tight end claimant who played heavily on teams for San Francisco and was a solid tackling and blocking option there. That may give him an edge over John FitzPatrick and Tucker Fisk, who were not nearly as integral for the Falcons on special teams last year.
  • Dane Cruikshank. He has to make the roster, but Cruikshank has played extensively on special teams and was a willing and capable tackler during his prime years. If he catches on in the last safety spot, Cruikshank should get plenty of run again.
  • Ruke Orhorho. At some point, this guy is going to block a field goal.

Special teams can be overlooked, but you certainly notice when things go wrong there, as they did for the Falcons a year. With their core specialists back, some quality players added to help out on returns and in coverage units, and with the addition of multiple returner options who should provide a lift, the hope is that the hiccups fade into the background and special teams is the true team strength is so often has been for Atlanta. If this team is to take the big step forward we’ve been promised they will, special teams improvement will play a real role there.

Originally posted on The Falcoholic – All Posts