Editor's Note:This story is a part of the Rookie Review series, which evaluates each individual of the Falcons 2021 rookie class, how they performed in Year one and what's ahead for them in Year two.
When the Falcons signed Cordarrelle Patterson, many were unsure what position he would play; even he did not know, saying, "If they want me to play running back, quarterback, tight end, kick returner, punt returner, it doesn't matter" in training camp. Still, it seemed to be obvious that he would at least be the Falcons' primary kick returner.
Patterson is arguably the greatest kick returner in NFL history. His eight kickoff return touchdowns are tied for the most ever.
But as anyone reading this knows now, Patterson had the best season of his nine-year career in 2021. He shined as a wide receiver and running back and took a step back in the return game because of his usage on offense.
And in came Avery Williams.
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Williams, a fifth-round pick out of Boise State in 2021, was a standout special teams player in college. Williams was named the Mountain West special teams player of the year in 2019, and returned two punt returns, two kick returns, and blocked two punts during his senior season.
That play translated to the NFL.
Williams thrived as the Falcons' primary return man ranking in the top 25 in punt and kick return yards in the league.
"He continues to get better with his overall football IQ and football knowledge and understanding the game, understanding the type of punters and kickers that he's going against," Special Teams Coordinator Marquice Williams said ahead of the Falcons season finale. "... His best days of playing in the NFL, I believe, are yet to come."
While Williams shined as a return man, he also played in the Falcons secondary. Williams appeared in the nickel cornerback role for seven games, playing a season-high of 50 snaps against the Washington Football Team in week four.
A look back: 18 games | 490 kick return yards | 21.3 kick return average | 153 punt return yards | 7.7 yards per return | overall PFF return grade 71.1
Stats as a cornerback: 7 games | no interceptions | no pass deflections | 14 tackles | No sacks | Three QB hits | 80.0 percent of targets caught | overall defensive PFF grade 48.0
What Williams learned in 2021: Adjusting to the many different ways NFL punters can kick the ball.
"The biggest difference is the punters you're going against," Williams said. "There's a whole bunch of different looks in terms of their punt direction. I mean, even the way they kick it in terms of the way the ball spins, the way it rotates if it's their right foot or left foot. We've had a lot of different styles of punts this year that you might not have seen at the college level."
Williams adjusted by using the Jugs machine – the device that shoots out passes, punts and kickoffs to any precise spot on your field at any speed or distance – and practicing with the Falcons' punters, a position that has had a lot of turnover this season. From Cameron Nizialek to Dustin Colquitt to Thomas Morstead, Williams had the opportunity to see many different mechanics in practice which helped him.
Areas for improvement: It seems that Williams has solidified himself as the Falcons returner, but if he ever hopes to become a more significant part of the Falcons defense, he will have to grow in coverage. Williams' overall PFF defensive grade was the lowest among the cornerbacks' group, tied with Darren Hall, who played over 150 more snaps.