FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When the Falcons secondary faced crucial injuries against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6, head coach Arthur Smith strongly considered putting running back Avery Williams back at cornerback.
"Very close," Smith said. "I thought I was going to put him in there in the San Fran game to end it. But I don't know how many guys would have gone into a game if he hadn't gone in there at corner, which we practiced in the camp. You guys all saw that against Jacksonville. So, he would have been a kick returner, punt returner, [personal protector], covered kicks, played receiver, played running back. If he had to go in there and play DB, it's a pretty valuable roster spot."
Casey Hayward, A.J. Terrell, and Isaiah Oliver all suffered injuries during that game. Hayward was placed on injured reserve following the matchup and Dee Alford dealt with a hamstring injury that kept him out of a Week 7 contest against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Terrell suffered a second injury against the Bengals in the first quarter that took him out the game, which limited the secondary to only Darren Hall, Cornell Armstrong, and Oliver. To say the least, this position group has been banged up over the last three weeks.
Williams, who is the primary punt and kick returner, was drafted as a cornerback by the Falcons in 2021, but later transitioned to running back ahead of the 2022 season. The skill set Williams brings has been vital for the Falcons and how they've been able to use him in all three phases of the game.
"I think his talents, his attributes for us is so, so important, so critical," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "Not only does he provide some kind of a safety net, he can talk to our guys on offense about 'hey, in this coverage, this is what they're expecting. This is the leverage they're going to play', so he's been such a great help on our side of the ball. If he needs to be, he can go out there and play defense too."
And if it did come down to Williams having to slot in at cornerback, he was more than ready to do so.
"I'll do whatever that helps the team so if we need a guy to go in when people are going down, I'd be happy to do that," he said.
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Carolina Panthers, presented by Gatorade.
Williams played in 15 games on defense as a rookie, tallying eight tackles, one pass deflection, and a forced fumble. This season, Williams has 58 rushing yards, one touchdown, 26 receiving yards, 97 kick return yards and 206 punt return yards. He leads the NFL in both punt return yards and punt return average (20.6). Like Smith mentioned above, he practiced a bit at corner during training camp too, while continuing to learn the offense and his role on special teams.
"The guy is constantly absorbing everything that's being talked about football," secondary coach Jon Hoke said. "He's one of those guys that is always around. He knows, he remembers. He talks to the defensive backs as well because he was with those guys all last year."
With a divisional matchup against the Carolina Panthers approaching on Sunday, there's a possibility Williams could see reps on defense if that permitted. If so, Williams feels more than prepared for it.
"Just be ready, be watching," Williams said. "If your name gets called be ready to go in there."