When the Falcons opted to not re-sign Dwight Lowery following the 2014 season, free safety instantly became one of the biggest needs on the field. The team did sign veteran Charles Godfrey, and though Godfrey wasn't the ideal candidate, it did appear that he would at least serve as a stopgap this season.
Nobody really anticipated Ricardo Allen, a 2014 fifth rounder who was actually cut following training camp last season and subsequently placed on the practice squad, emerging as the frontrunner for the starting free safety role, but Allen's skill set and work ethic have made an impression on the coaching staff.
Allen is currently taking most of the first team reps at free safety and appears to be coming along nicely, though there are still many elements of his game Allen will need to refine.
"He's worked extremely hard at it, and so he's taken to the principles of playing free safety," head coach Dan Quinn said this week. "I think more than anything, it's the communication that he's working on day in and day out. So at that free safety spot, you're furthest from the ball, but you see the most, so that communication's key. It's something that he's continuing to work on."
One thing I noticed from Allen in OTAs was his ability to track the ball and his awareness on the field. These qualities, along with his speed, certainly create the potential for Allen play the free safety position effectively. There's so much to learn with the transition to a new position, however, and Allen is willing to put in the time and effort to master it.
Desmond Trufant commended Allen's commitment to time spent off the field learning the nuances of the free safety position.
"He's looking real good out there. He looks natural, like he's been doing it for years," Trufant said. "He's obviously still young and has to get experience, but he's a student of the game. He's always in his playbook. He's always thinking, and he's going to be just fine out there."
William Moore has also been pleased with Allen's progress and work ethic.
"You've got Ricardo Allen — I'm so excited for his progress for coming in for a new position," Moore said. "And he's been here all offseason. I've seen him around the facility."
Allen learned some valuable lessons during his time on the practice squad last season. Allen told me last season that he prepared every day with that "next man up" mentality, and that hasn't changed.
This season, with a starting role and significant playing time nearly within his grasp, Allen's working hard every day to make it happen, and he's willing to play any role the team deems necessary to help the Falcons win.
"Every day I'm going to come out here and compete. Every day I'm going to come out to be better," Allen said. "Every day I'm going to come out and just try to help my team be the best we can be, and wherever they want me at — if they want me at corner, nickel, safety — I'm going to try to find a spot somewhere."
While the idea of Allen starting at free safety was a surprise to many fans, Allen did spend some time in that role toward the end of training camp last season.
"I actually did a little bit of free safety last year with the other coaching staff, also in training camp — it was late in training camp, but it wasn't really many reps," Allen said. "But I always just look to learn everything I can; look to make myself more valuable any way I can, and any way I can help this team out, any way I can help this team be great, I'm here to do it."
The simplified defensive scheme should make this transition a little easier for Allen. The defense is primarily focused on not giving up big plays and creating turnovers without a lot of complicated schematic elements to think through on each play.
Allen had 13 career interceptions at Purdue, four of which he returned for touchdowns. This new scheme should be a good fit for him.
"In our scheme, it's see ball, get ball," Allen said. "We're all about the ball, so you do your technique, you do your assignment, and if you see the ball in the air, it's fair game...if I can go get the ball and I've got the skills to play on it, I want to make a play on the ball."
Closing speed is one of the stronger elements of Allen's game, and that should help him both create turnovers and provide effective over-the-top help to the cornerbacks.
Allen said that the game speed of the safety position is actually a little slower, which helps when there's so much for a free safety to process leading up to and after the snap.
"It's actually a little slower game. You've just got to slow your feet down," Allen said. "Being a cornerback, everything is, like, right now. Quick reactions. So as a safety, you've just got to see the bigger picture. That's really it. You've got to come from being such a narrow view as a corner to opening up to see the whole field."
Allen doesn't have prototypical size for the safety position, but his ball skills, closing speed, intelligence and work ethic have helped him emerge as the best candidate on Atlanta's roster.
Your thoughts on Allen's transition to free safety and the expectation that he'll start this season?