'More For Me!' Falcons Returner Avery Williams Talks New NFL Rule, Injury Recovery

Atlanta Falcons special teams star Avery Williams offered his thoughts on the NFL's new kick return rule.
Atlanta Falcons running back Avery Williams is eyeing a bounce-back season after missing 2023 with an injury.
Atlanta Falcons running back Avery Williams is eyeing a bounce-back season after missing 2023 with an injury. / Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
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Amidst the chaos of player arrivals and departures, the NFL offseason constitutes a time of change within the league's rulebook - and one may prove particularly beneficial to the Atlanta Falcons.

At the league owners meetings in late March, teams formally approved a new kickoff rule that puts all non-kicking members of the kickoff coverage team on the opposing 40-yard line but prohibits them from moving until the ball hits the ground and/or is returned.

The rule comes after the NFL had the lowest kick return rate - 22 percent - in league history last season while injury concerns remain prevalent in the league's office.

And with the new rule comes much anticipation for Falcons running back and return specialist Avery Williams, who spoke with reporters after the team's OTA practice.

"It's more returns for me," Williams said. "And so, I'm extremely excited. I'm glad they're making this adjustment, and I'm excited to see how the league handles this. There's going to be a lot of adjustments on the fly, from preseason to Week 1 and so on, because everyone's learning at the same rate - this is new to everybody."

Williams, a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, has 39 kick returns to his name - 23 in 2021 and 16 in 2022 - for 803 yards and an average of 20.6 yards per return. He was Atlanta's primary returner, though now-Pittsburgh Steeler Cordarrelle Patterson also took back some kicks in each season.

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The 25-year-old Williams missed all of last season due to a torn ACL suffered during OTAs, and while he still dons a brace on his surgically repaired knee, he said he's able to do all the movements necessary and is fully healthy.

The recovery of Williams is good news for Atlanta's return game, especially in terms of punts, where Williams starred before his injury.

In 2022, Williams led the NFL in yards per punt return at 16.2, nearly three yards more than second place. In 2023, with Williams on the sideline, Atlanta's punt return core ranked third worst in the league, averaging just 7.2 yards per return.

Naturally, more factors played into it than just the loss of Williams - but he proved to be a difference maker for a Falcons squad that was forced to look toward a variety of sources for help, including corners Dee Alford and Mike Hughes.

Atlanta's banking on a healthy Williams reinvigorating the return game, though plenty of options exist around him. Alford and Hughes are both back, and Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot believes receivers Rondale Moore and Ray-Ray McCloud III offer return value as well.

But Williams is the leading figure, and he's eyeing a heavy dose of returns this fall thanks to the introduction of the new rule.

"I do know that the return rates going to be up," Williams said. "Touch back rate was really high the past few years, and I think it'll be flipped. I think the return rates are going to be really high, and you'll see a low touch back rate. So, it's good for football and it's good for everybody, including returners."

During OTAs, Williams has been the Falcons' No. 2 running back, a scenario prompted due to injury restraints with Bijan Robinson and sixth-round rookie Jase McClellan. As such, Williams has spent considerable time working with Atlanta's first-team offense in his return to the gridiron.

But Williams didn't appear overly concerned about his role in the offense; instead, he's focused on learning the fundamentals of new offensive coordinator Zac Robinson's playbook and trying to execute when his opportunities arise.

Williams said his offseason was lengthy, constituting a heavy workload centered around maintaining his strength and stability. He's just now closing in on the one-year mark of his injury.

Still, he added he feels good on the field - and already has a comprehensive understanding of what rests ahead when he goes back to return his first kickoff this fall.

"You got a lot of guys starting on the same line all the way down the field," Williams said. "So, you might find returns hitting where they're not planning to hit. There's going to be a lot of instinct, a lot of vision used."

Falcons head coach Raheem Morris said May 21 he likes where his special teams unit stands with understanding the rule, though there's still many different things to experiment with.

Yet regardless of new flavors mixed in, this much is believed to be true: more kick return opportunities are coming, and Williams feels ready to capitalize.

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Daniel Flick


Daniel Flick is an accredited NFL writer for Sports Illustrated's FanNation. Daniel has provided boots-on-ground coverage at the NFL Combine and from the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters, among other destinations, and contributed to the annual Lindy's Sports Magazine ahead of the 2023 offseason. Daniel is a co-host on the 404TheFalcon podcast and previously wrote for the Around the Block Network and Georgia Sports Hospitality Media.