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Falcons Free Safety Review: Well, This is Awkward

Free safety was a position of weakness for the Falcons in 2013.

Kevin C. Cox

Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud was coming off of a very solid 2012 season--one that culminated with DeCoud and his strong safety colleague William Moore representing the NFC in the Pro Bowl as alternate selections. DeCoud finished the 2012 season with nine pass deflections and six interceptions--a career high in both categories for DeCoud. Sure, he had a tendency to not wrap up tackles and take bad angles, but his opportunistic play made up for any deficiencies.

Fast forward to 2013, and it's a completely different story. DeCoud finished the season with two pass deflections and zero interceptions. DeCoud also had 12 missed tackles and the worst Pro Football Focus grade--a staggering -16.0--on the entire defense for the 2013 season. DeCoud's pass coverage grade of -11.3 was also staggeringly bad and the worst on the team.

The Falcons used two seventh-round picks on safeties in the 2013 NFL Draft. Kemal Ishmael is a free safety out of the University of Central Florida, and he played three defensive snaps this season. Zeke Motta is technically a strong safety out of Notre Dame, but he was tapped to fill in for DeCoud when DeCoud got benched briefly in week 11 against Tampa Bay, and again when DeCoud suffered a concussion in week 14 of the 2013 season. Motta played 158 defensive snaps and finished the season with a -1.4 grade overall. His pass coverage grade from Pro Football Focus was a +0.8.

Best game: Week 7

Without a doubt, it was week 7 against the Buccaneers in the Georgia Dome. DeCoud had five tackles, one assist, and zero missed tackles. DeCoud also recovered a fumble forced by Willy Mo and ran it in for a touchdown. His overall Pro Football Focus grade for the game was a +1.1.

Worst game: take your pick

Oh, good Lord. Which week did Dave coin the nickname "Decouldn't?" Probably that game. Every other game for DeCoud this season was rough. He was a liability against the run and seemed to be out of position and consistently took bad angles on passing downs.

Best moment: Fumble recovery and touchdown versus Tampa Bay

It was a big factor in a much-needed win, and it was a heads-up play by DeCoud. William Moore caught Mike Glennon unaware on a safety blitz and forced the fumble.

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DeCoud recovered it and ran 30 yards for a touchdown.

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It was a thing of beauty.

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Worst moment: What is he even trying to do here?

This happened against the Cardinals in week 8 of the 2013 season. Andre Ellington is going to bounce outside, and as you can see, DeCoud is in a perfect position to limit Ellington's progress.

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But does he? Not exactly.

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Years under contract:

DeCoud: 2014 ($4.8 million) 2015 ($4 million) 2016 ($4.2 million)

Motta: 2014 ($506,474) 2015 ($596,474) 2016 ($686,474)

Ishmael: 2014 ($506,474) 2015 ($596,474) 2016 ($686,474)

Roster changes:

I don't see any way that DeCoud can stay on this roster without heavy restructuring. DeCoud's pay is not commensurate with the quality of play he exhibited in 2013. If the Falcons were to cut DeCoud outright, they'll be saddled with $1.8 million in dead money this season. Reports indicate that the Falcons are exploring other free safety options, and that's not an untenable amount of dead money to deal with, so cutting DeCoud is a logical possibility if the Falcons can secure a viable replacement.

Final Grade: F

This hurts me more than it hurts you, free safeties. I love Thomas DeCoud off the field. He has a great personality, he is great with fans, and he genuinely is a phenomenal athlete. He just does not play fundamentally sound football. He didn't play fundamentally sound football prior to this season, but he generated enough turnovers in previous seasons to mask or compensate for his deficiencies. This year was a different story, and the fact that he has never been able to correct his deficiencies would suggest that it's unlikely he ever will.

Zeke Motta isn't really built like a free safety, and it doesn't seem to be his natural position. I think the Falcons thrust him into that role because he was more NFL-ready than Kemal Ishmael, but I don't see Motta as the answer long-term. I don't think the team can afford to turn the free safety reins over to a guy who played three whole snaps last season, either. Clearly the Falcons believe Ishmael needs more development, otherwise I think we would have seen him on the field more last season, and I don't really see Ishmael as an immediate solution at the free safety position, either. Based on reports that Louis Delmas will visit Atlanta after the Combine, we can assume that the Falcons will try to address this need through free agency first and foremost.