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A year after season-ending knee injury, Avery Williams returns with clear vision in place

After leading the league in average yards per punt return in 2022, Avery Williams spent 2023 watching and waiting from the sidelines. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Avery Williams was always around in 2023, just not in the way he wanted to be. He made every trip. He saw almost every practice. He didn't miss a moment on the sidelines during games.

The sideline, though, was as far as he could go.

Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in the offseason season training program in 2023, well before the season ever began. It was a gut punch for Williams, who was coming off a season in which he led the league in average yards per punt return. In all actuality, he didn't just lead the league in that margin, he dominated it. His average 16.2 yards per punt return was three yards more than the second-best punt returner(s) that year. Tremon Smith and Kalif Raymond tied for second with a 13.2-yards average.

Without Williams returning punts, the Falcons dropped to third-lowest in the league in average yards per punt return in 2023. As a unit, the Falcons went from a lead-leading 16.2 average to 7.2 yards per return last season. All Williams could do during that time was look on from afar.

Even in that, though, Williams was grateful to be around, even if it meant looking through a glass window in the team's weight room as he rehabbed his knee when the team took to the practice field day in and day out.

"You've seen guys who have had big, big injuries and they're not around until they're healed and come back, but I couldn't imagine that," Williams said. "It's hard for me to really say how that would look or how that would feel. And I don't think I would ever want it to be that way. I'm grateful that I was able to be around for many reasons, but mainly to be around my friends, my teammates, every single day and still feel a part of the team."

Now, Williams finds himself almost a year removed from the day of the injury that sidelined him. He's back on the grass once more, and when asked what that feels like after so much time away, Williams said the simple act of running onto a football field has greater importance to him now than maybe it did pre-injury.

"After the injury you start to realize the small things like just being grateful to be out here," Williams said. "Even when we have a lot of reps, or there might be hard days here and there, I'm grateful to just have the ability to get tired out here. I could be out here watching all the time like I did last year. There's a certain amount of aches or anxiousness that comes with not being able to help or participate, not being able to help your teammates that are out there working their butts off."


Even in the work and the grind, there's a sense of ease that washes over Williams now. He may wear a brace on that fully-rehabbed knee, but it's coming off soon, he said. His strength is there. His quickness hasn't dulled. His comfort has returned.

And with all of that established, it's now made way for Williams to start planning and setting his own goals and expectations for himself. From a team perspective, it's always about winning championships, he said, that is why they're all here after all.

However, his personal goals have little to do with health and everything to do with picking up exactly where he left off.

"My goal, my expectation for myself is to lead the league again," Williams said, "in punt return and in kick return with the new kick return rules. It's going to be a different dynamic on special teams, but my expectations? They've always been to lead, to be first, to be No. 1."

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