The NFL can be a cruel business. The dreams that start in pop warner, gain traction in high school, and are realized through college and the NFL Draft can come to a sudden halt when a team decides that a player is not quite good enough for the 53-man roster. It's a sobering reality - one that Ricardo Allen faced just last year, even after being drafted in the fifth round by the Atlanta Falcons. Fans watched on HBO's Hard Knocks as Allen was cut from the team and ultimately signed to the 10 man practice squad. Though he would finally make it on the 53-man roster in December when starting corner Robert Alford went on Injured Reserve, it was of little consequence as the Falcons would finish 6-10 and miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Allen would have to wait another year to prove his worth, albeit for a new set of coaches this time.
Enter Dan Quinn. The former coordinator of the #1 defense in the NFL came in with a fresh set of eyes and a belief that players should be put into the roles that feature their best traits. Fans would be forgiven if they didn't see Allen as a potential option at free safety. At 5'9" and 186 pounds, he doesn't necessarily fit the NFL prototype for the position. Luckily, Coach Quinn saw it differently.
While at Purdue, Allen was a ballhawk. In his four years there, he pulled in 13 interceptions - 4 of which he took back for touchdowns. The knock on Allen has always been his size and his "timed" speed. His instincts and toughness were highly touted, but scouts had a hard time looking past his frame, strength and speed. At the NFL Combine, Ricardo would register a 4.54 in the 40 - not bad, but not ideal when scouts label you as undersized. Because of that, Allen would be labeled a day-3 prospect with some value as a reserve corner and core special teams player. The Falcons ended up taking him in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft.
As the 2015 off-season progressed, fans wondered what Quinn would do to shake things up. Given that the Falcons didn't sign a notable free agent for free safety, many of us felt that Godfrey would wind up with the job. Then the reports started to trickle in that Ricardo was getting reps at free safety. That quickly turned into Allen taking first team reps. Before long, he was taking all of the first team reps at free safety and appeared to be adjusting very quickly to the position change. By the time the first preseason game came around, not only was the former fifth round pick (and cut) on the roster - he was now a starter. A starter in one of the most important positions on Dan Quinn's defense.
Allen hasn't done it alone, though. It took a coach who was willing to give Allen the opportunity. Allen has also relied heavily on his wife, who has helped him consistently perfect his craft and be a non-stop student of the game. Ultimately, though, it has been Ricardo who has trained, studied and performed. Which leads us to his performance during the game against the Eagles.
This play is the one that is getting all of the attention:
But the reality is that he had a great outing all night. He consistently demonstrated superb instincts and was very good in run support as well. This, his very first NFL regular season game - in a new position that he has just started learning. I don't know that you could ask for a better start than that.
Don't just take it from me, however. Richard Smith, the defensive coordinator for the Falcons, was very positive in his assessment of Allen in his first game, saying "...He's been training extremely well. He's accepted all of the coaching...He tackled extremely well...We're really pleased with his progress and I think as he continues to play it's only going to get better and better...He brings speed and range to the position..." It should be noted that Smith is not normally very effusive in his praise, but he was notably so in talking about Allen.
While it was only one game, you can't help but root for Ricardo going forward. Once cut and stashed away as an after thought, he's now at the center of a reinvented defense - a starter in a new position who is already making an impact, even if all the odds say it shouldn't be happening. In many ways, his individual story is a reflection of the team as a whole. Not given a chance before, he's found new life under this new coaching staff and has seized the opportunity before him. His unlikely emergence is at the heart of what feels good about the new Falcons: that despite what was said or believed about you before, you can find a fresh start now.
For Allen, that fresh start has been an exciting one. Let's hope this is only the beginning of the great things to come.