We’ve spent a lot of time this spring and early summer speculating on where the Falcons have made moves to shore up their weaknesses from 2018. The offensive line, running backs, secondary and pass rush have been picked apart and dissected to the point where there’s little left to pick through. While everyone will be keeping those units under a microscope when camp starts another battle will be playing out that will be just as important. Who will be stepping up to improve the Falcons punt and kickoff return games.
The Falcons failed dismally at flipping field position with their punt return game in 2018. Justin Hardy was seventeenth out of 19 players who had at least 20 returns in yards per punt return average. His longest return of 18 yards put him eighteenth among that group.
One explanation for Hardy’s troubles in returning punts is that 2018 was the first time in his four-year NFL career that the Falcons put him in that position. Still, there are 12 receivers on the Falcons roster heading into camp. If Hardy can show that there’s another level he can reach as a returner that could go a long way towards sealing a roster spot for 2019.
He’ll have to respond because the Falcons selected wide receiver Marcus Green in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft with the idea that he would be competing to be the new return man. Green returned five punts for 85 yards and one touchdown last season at Louisiana-Monroe. In his four years in school Green also returned 70 kickoffs for a 25.2 yards per return average and four touchdowns.
The Falcons also need someone to step in to do that job in 2019 since they let Marvin Hall get away as a free agent.
Of course, veteran Kenjon Barner will also be looking to have a say in who returns punts and kicks for the Falcons. Barner was the primary punt and kickoff return man for the 2017 Super Bowl LII Champion Philadelphia Eagles. He returned three kickoffs in that game for 73 yards. Overall that season Barner returned 27 punts for an 8.9 yards per return average and 10 kickoffs for a 19.4 yards per return average.
When training camp opens and preseason games get under way there will be a lot to watch between offensive line improvements, edge rush solutions and secondary competitions. Don’t let the battle to handle the team’s kick and punt return duties slip through the cracks.