Earlier in the offseason, Falcons head coach Mike Smith said the role of the returner on special teams would likely come from an established player already on the roster. Throughout OTAs, the primary candidates appeared to be Harry Douglas and Dominique Franks, but college free agent James Rodgers seems to have worked his way into the mix, despite being a rookie with the team.
Departed is last year's returner Eric Weems, and on Thursday, special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said replacing Weems would be a difficult task. In addition to being the return man, Weems also played a signifcant role on coverage teams and for the last two seasons was one of the team's top special teams tacklers.
In the past, Smith called Weems "a core special teams player," and the search to find that replacement is on. Armstrong said he's looking to someone on the roster to stake their claim to the role when training camp begins.
"Obviously, a young guy has to step up, or a vet has to step up, and fill that role as the core cover guy," Armstrong said. "Obviously, Eric wore so many hats for us and did an outstanding job for us. We'll have to split his role into several different guys. Hopefully we can get that done in the offseason, get some guys trained up. Once we put the pads on, the picture will become more clear."
The return job, as it stands now, appears to be between Douglas, Franks and Rodgers, all players that have experience as a returner. As a rookie in 2008, Douglas assumed the role with great success, creating one of the highlight plays of the season with his 61-yard punt return touchdown against Carolina.
"(Douglas is) obviously a threat to score," Armstrong said. "He has a pretty good chance to be our punt returner. Dominique Franks has the ability to become a punt returner. He did a nice job in college at Oklahoma. James Rodgers, Jacquizz (Rodgers)' brother, has also been pretty solid out here catching the ball clean. He has some experience as a punt returner. It'll be interesting to see what goes on between those three guys."
Armstrong threw out the name of another candidate that could be something of a dark horse. Backup running back Antone Smith has stuck with the Falcons since 2009, spending his first season with the team on the practice squad. His primary role in the past has been on special teams, but he has electric speed and is an intriguing pick.
"You look at a guy like Antone Smith, you can get him involved in the kickoff returns as well, with his speed and running back ability," Armstrong said.
Like all roster spots and position battles, the decisions are in the early stages of development. Once training camp begins, the coaching staff will begin to focus their attention on making the final decisions on who to enter the season with.
"It's going to be an open competition," Armstrong said. "Obviously, a lot of roster moves will have a lot to do with it and all that type of stuff. I'm trying to coach the group and we'll go from there."