Avery Williams has served as the primary kick- and punt-return option for the Falcons over the past two seasons. The team looks likely to need other contributors in these roles in 2023.
An injury sustained during the Falcons’ offseason program is set to sideline Williams — probably for the season. Arthur Smith said Wednesday that Williams will undergo ACL surgery. While the third-year HC did not specify if the ligament was fully torn, ACL surgery obviously threatens Williams’ third NFL season. It is, in fact, an ACL tear, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. The noncontact injury occurred during a Falcons OTA practice last week; Williams’ surgery is scheduled for Thursday.
Smith said Josh Ali, offseason addition Mike Hughes and perhaps wide receiver Penny Hart are candidates to take over as Atlanta’s punt returner, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter (on Twitter). Williams logged 38 punt returns over the past two seasons. All-Decade kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson obviously looms as a candidate to handle the kick-return role, especially considering the Falcons’ Bijan Robinson draft choice. But Patterson has been used mostly as a running back in Atlanta.
Williams stepped in as Atlanta’s main kick returner following Patterson’s early-season knee injury last year. The former fifth-round pick has logged 41 kick returns during his two-season run. Williams, whom the Falcons converted from cornerback to running back in 2022, also played a role as a reserve on offense last season. After not seeing time on defense as a rookie, Williams’ position change led to 22 carries (for 109 yards) and 13 receptions (for 61) in 2022. Williams’ 292 punt-return yards ranked 10th last season.
The Falcons are fairly deep at running back, minimizing this injury on that front. The team added Robinson to a group housing 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley. The return game figures to be more impacted by this offseason setback. It will certainly be interesting if the Falcons utilize Patterson, 32, as a full-time kick returner. While not used much as a punt returner during his 10-year career, the four-time All-Pro is one of the best kick returners in NFL history. He led the NFL with 35 kick returns with the Bears in 2020 but has not topped 18 in either of his Falcons seasons.