With Hester Out, Falcons Have Options at Returner

The Atlanta Falcons are getting ready for Monday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles in the first week of the regular season. Check out these photos of the Falcons at work.

With Devin Hester (toe) expected to miss Monday's opener against Philadelphia, the Falcons will have to make some adjustments on special teams.

Hester, arguably the best kick/punt returner of all-time, can be replaced by a trio of intriguing alternatives. Eric Weems took the bulk of returns during Saturday's practice and has a lot of experience in that role; skilled newcomers Justin Hardy and Nick Williams could be utilized, too, and both looked good in August.

While it's unclear who exactly will fill in for Hester, Atlanta is confident in the options available.

"We've got a number of guys that I think are capable of getting the job done for us," said ST coordinator Keith Armstrong. "We'll get the best guy back there for the job."

Although the Falcons' coaching staff underwent major changes this winter, team brass decided to retain Armstrong from the previous regime. It's not difficult to understand why: During his tenure, Atlanta has consistently featured one of the NFL's best special teams units.

And according to players, the veteran coach has kept his scheme the same from 2014, which has benefited Weems—now the ST captain—in particular.

"That helps a lot," Weems said of Armstrong's continuity. "Teams and everything still stays the same. He's a strong guy. He takes pride in what he does and he doesn't let guys come in and mess around in the meeting room. He's hard on me even though I'm captain and gives me 100 percent coaching."

Selected in the fourth round of this year's draft, Hardy made his presence felt during the exhibition finale when he brought back a Sam Koch punt 70 yards. Williams, a shifty, elusive receiver, returned a pair of Koch punts for 34 combined yards.

If one of those two are given an opportunity during Week 1, it could make a big difference in the final outcome.

"I don't know (the plan) just yet," said Hardy. "Just trying to be ready if my name is called. Just getting my feet wet (in preseason), going in and doing what I do, it makes this a lot easier."

Losing Hester for Week 1 hurts, but his presence could still affect Atlanta's return game on Monday. The future Hall of Famer, whose sharp football acumen complements his physical ability, has been a valuable mentor to Weems, Hardy and Williams—both on the gridiron and in the film room.

"Devin definitely helps a lot," Hardy said. "Every day we're out here catching punts, getting different drill sets that he gives us. That just makes us better. And when we're watching tape, he shows us how to read the blocks, how we should set up, where we're trying to go. There's a lot of emphasis on that."

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