At this point, I'd put DeCoud's chances of returning to Atlanta at much less than 50%. That would leave a void at free safety that the Falcons won't be able to fill internally unless Zeke Motta or Kemal Ishmael have taken enormous leaps forward. How do you fill that void?
Let's run down two avenues and examine a handful of players who could be options for our Falcons.
This is a logical option for a Falcons team with some cap space to burn, but it will be a question of how much money they can and will invest.
Jairus Byrd was one of the first free agents linked to the Falcons, and he'd be a logical choice in many ways. He's capable of making big plays, he tackles well and his coverage skills are light years ahead of what the Falcons have had at the position this century. The issue is that he could command $8 million-plus in any contract and that he may not even get out of Buffalo. He's the kind of ballhawk that we all hoped Thomas DeCoud would be every single season, though, and that would be a nice element to have back in the secondary.
T.J. Ward is the other top option. Ward could easily play either safety spot, he's one of the cleanest tacklers in the league and he's perhaps the most underrated safety in the NFL right now, given his balanced skill set. Unfortunately, he's even less likely to leave Cleveland than Byrd is to leave Buffalo, owing to Cleveland's enormous amount of cap space. I'd love to see him in a Falcons jersey.
Once you get beyond those two, it thins out, but the Falcons could still get a starting-caliber safety for a reasonable salary. Mike Mitchell rehabilitated his value with a big year in Carolina. Chris Clemons is solid in coverage, Donte Whitner is a big hitter who wouldn't be a tangible upgrade in coverage and guys like Antoine Bethea and Mike Adams would be reasonable stopgaps if the Falcons whiff on other options. Unfortunately, many of the reasonably-priced options are well over 30, so you would be talking about someone who would be a starter for a year or two, tops.
The Falcons need to take one of three avenues in free agency: Sign a high-end safety as one of their splash signings and upgrade hugely on Thomas DeCoud, sign a stopgap to take over for DeCoud or compete with him, or bow out of the market if things get really thin. If that last item is the case, then the Falcons should look at the draft.
The best safety in the draft is probably Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He's an incredible athlete who already has solid coverage instincts and wraps up when he tackles. Patrolling center field for Alabama, he had bizarrely low tackle totals the last two season, but the toolkit is there and you shouldn't worry too much about that. He may not be a turnover machine at the pro level, but he should be an asset in all facets of the game for any team that drafts him. The Falcons could likely swap down for him, but I doubt he'll be there late enough to swap up out of the second.
Calvin Pryor's up next. He has quality size, speed and positional versatility at the pro level to be an asset. He's also a big hitter who had seven picks and 14 pass breakups over three seasons at Louisville. What he is not is a terrific cover safety, at least at this stage of his career. His run support and raw ability mean he could well be an asset there before long, however.
There's quality prospects available downdraft, but counting on any of them to start might be a stretch. LaMarcus Joyner is a hell of a player with stellar coverage skills owing to his time as a cornerback at Florida State, but will be facing Honey Badger-esque questions about his height (5'8"). Ed Reynolds is a big, rangy player who doesn't jump off the tape as a stellar athlete. And so on. The point is, unless the Falcons are really bullish on one of these players, their starting safety might have to come in the first two rounds.
The Falcons should make every effort to sign Jairus Byrd or T.J Ward if they become available, as it would potentially give the Falcons one of the league's better secondaries in 2014 and beyond. Failing that, they should strongly consider moving around as necessary to acquire Calvin Pryror or consider taking a long look at LaMarcus Joyner in the draft. Failing that, there are the second-tier safeties like Clemons, Mitchell and Bethea who could provide tangible short-term upgrades and shore up one of the team's weakest positions from 2013. I'm willing to bet the Falcons take a big swing at Byrd.