The Atlanta Falcons are woefully thin at free safety. It's a fact beyond change, at least for now. With another free agency period and draft, I'm hopeful Thomas Dimitroff and company can remedy that. But strong safety is a different story. At strong safety the Falcons have depth.
Vaughn McClure did his defensive back preview today. He concisely and emphatically defended Kemal Ishmael in that piece. It's worth a read, if you have a moment.
Ishmael is the forgotten man in the safety equation, but he shouldn't be. He led the team with four interceptions last season -- including one returned 23 yards for a touchdown -- and is one of the team's better tacklers. If Ishmael was more of a free safety type, he'd be right in the starting lineup next to Moore. Since Ishmael is better suited as an in-the-box-type safety, he'll have to settle for a reserve role for now. But he'll get opportunities, for sure.
I'll just man up and acknowledge Ishmael for what he really is: one of the best backup safeties in the league. We're always lamenting the lack of quality depth on this team. Ishmael is the exception to that rule.
From an objective perspective, 2014 was a mixed bag for Ishmael. Sure, he led the team in interceptions, but he did sometimes struggle in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, he struggled mightily in coverage against the Vikings, Bears, Lions, Packers, and Steelers. Basically the NFC North wasn't Ishmael's friend. But all kidding aside, he thrived in coverage against the Saints and in both games against the Buccaneers (those games account for half of his interceptions). At this point, it's unclear whether he can be any better in coverage. My guess is he can, and that his inconsistent play against the pass is simply characteristic of a second year player seeing substantial snaps for the first time.
But wait a second, Ishmael is a strong safety, not a free safety. So how'd he fare against the run? Well, earning a 0.6 rating over the course 823 defensive snaps, he was essentially average. He met expectations.
To be frank, I'm just a little bullish on Ishmael. I think he performed admirably last season under difficult circumstances. With competent defensive coaches and some additional seasoning, Ishmael may turn some heads. That's a compliment most back up safeties can't garner.