Dezmen Southward likely won't be a starter in the coming weeks—especially after the Falcons acquired safety Charles Godfrey—but chances are he's going to carve out a larger role on defense.
Southward has had limited snaps thus far after being drafted in the third round out of Wisconsin. He was known as a quality athlete but far from a finished product in school, so my expectations for him in 2014 were quite low. In the snaps he's managed to glom onto in the absence of William Moore, though, he's been a pleasant surprise for these Falcons, particularly in coverage.
That's relevant because Kemal Ishmael, while a hard hitter and gung-ho safety against the run, has been a liability in coverage, particularly when he's asked to go deep. He was burned pretty good last Sunday, and that's not the first time he's been on the wrong end of a long play. Ishmael's going to be key depth for this team going forward, at least, but at the moment he's playing every single defensive snap with those known coverage issues. Charles Godfrey is an upgrade in coverage, yes, but no one's suggesting he's a great safety.
Given Southward's coverage chops thus far—again, recognizing the small sample size—it's fair to that he could cut into Ishmael's snaps on obvious passing plays, particularly on long third downs, while remaining in his third safety role.
Mike Nolan didn't sound like he was ready to give Southward the call over Ishmael despite Ishmael's issues in coverage.— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) October 28, 2014
Southward can play both safety spots, but Nolan talked about using all three with Southward, Ishmael, and Lowery, with Lowery down.— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) October 28, 2014
The idea of getting the rookie more playing time isn't an anomaly, but the likeliest course of action for the team in the coming weeks. Saddled with underperforming veterans and those who probably will not return to the team in 2015. We all recall the way the Falcons benched Osi Umenyiora and Asante Samuel down the stretch in 2013 to get more time for Jonathan Massaquoi and Robert Alford. Something similar could play out here, with Southward, Ra'Shede Hageman and Devonta Freeman taking on more playing time at the expense of veterans in front of them.
Whether Southward has to fight just Ishmael or Ishmael and Godfrey for snaps remains to be seen, but I like his chances of getting on the field more as the season grinds on. He is the future, after all.