For the first time since 2010, the Falcons will have a new starting strong safety. First round draft pick Keanu Neal is replacing William Moore as the new enforcer on the back end of the defense. Although Moore suffered from several injury-plagued seasons, his leadership will be greatly missed, as he provided a much-needed physical presence for a relatively weak defense. With his departure, the Falcons safety corps is filled with mostly young players.
Charles Godfrey is the only safety that has played more than three seasons, and he isn't even guaranteed to make the roster. There is plenty of upside at safety, but the lack of experience is concerning. The five safeties consist of two definite starters, a key backup, and two players battling for a roster spot. Most teams only keep four safeties on their active roster.
Keanu Neal (Starting Strong Safety)
Most first round picks face immediate high expectations. With the front office passing on highly touted prospects such as Shaq Lawson and Myles Jack, Neal is going to receive added pressure. The Falcons' defense desperately needs stability at strong safety. As talented as Moore was, his inability to stay healthy left a below average defense shorthanded on far too many occasions. Neal's explosive hard-hitting style needs to translate into him becoming a complete safety.
When Moore was injured, Kemal Ishmael's coverage limitations left the middle of the field open. Dan Quinn is convinced that Neal is capable of handling cover-three responsibilities. No defense allowed more receptions to running backs last season than the Falcons. Tight ends have been productive against their slow defense for several seasons. Neal is expected to play a significant role towards ending both issues. Besides Vic Beasley, there isn't a defensive player that will be watched more closely than Neal. It may seem harsh, but the former Gator was selected to replace a massive hole in the starting lineup, and he'll need to be good immediately.
Ricardo Allen (Starting Free Safety)
It was a promising first season for the converted free safety. Allen made several plays in coverage and proved to be a willing tackler. Unlike most players during the losing streak, his play never considerably declined. With a strong work ethic and excellent instincts, Allen is capable of becoming a long-term staple in Atlanta's secondary. He is still far from being a finished product.
His weaknesses are reminiscent of most young safeties. Allen missed a fair share of open field tackles, which led to big plays. Taking poor angles affected his play as well. Both issues can be fixed from studying tape and gaining more experience. Allen was one of the last season's bigger surprises on a defense lacking playmakers. This upcoming season should give us an indication of his overall ceiling as a player.
Kemal Ishmael (Top Backup)
There are two common evaluations of Ishmael's career. He is either an overachiever based on being selected in the seventh round and managing to solidify himself as a capable backup, he's overrated Ishmael because some are labeling him as the long-term solution at strong safety. Thankfully for the defense's sake, Quinn didn't waste time drafting a potential long-term solution. Ishmael is excellent against the run, as he can be utilized as an extra linebacker in the box. Nobody has ever questioned his ability to tackle and lay vicious hits. A lack of range and speed keeps him from evolving into a starting-caliber strong safety.
Whether it's being oversized or having poor footwork, opposing offenses exploited the former seventh round pick on a consistent basis in coverage. Many teams struggle to have safety depth, as they are forced into signing a free agent, who is likely overmatched. Ishmael is a solid backup with vast experience playing 50-60 snaps a game. Although the hard-hitting safety likely won't ever develop into a starting-caliber player, he is a valuable piece for special teams and backup purposes. Ishmael may also enter the 2016 season as the oldest safety on the roster, oddly enough. That experience holds value behind a rookie and second-year player, who only started playing the position a year ago.
Roberson Therezie (Battling for roster spot)
Therezie is the type of athlete that Quinn covets on defense. The former running back ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day. After being labeled as a hybrid safety/linebacker, he received a fair amount of playing time last year. Therezie didn't stand out, but never appeared to be a liability either. Similar to Allen, many fans were impressed by his willingness to engage and play physical. Watching Thomas DeCoud play for countless years makes any open-field tackle refreshing for Falcon fans. Converted safeties tend to be overwhelmed at the point of attack. Therezie never shied away from opposing running backs or tight ends.
Despite his upside, Therezie faces an uphill battle for playing time. He struggled in man coverage against opposing tight ends. That may have played a role in Charles Godfrey receiving playing time over him during the last two games of last season. Re-signing Godfrey shows the coaching staff's willingness to potentially keep him on the roster. Only four safeties will remain on the roster. Therezie needs to make significant strides in order to retain his spot.
Charles Godfrey (Battling for roster spot)
Just when the former third round pick appeared to be gone, he managed to get re-signed. Nobody knew the thought process behind Godfrey being re-signed and released on three separate occasions last year, not even Charles Godfrey. The situation became more bizarre, when he played 35 snaps against the Colts only two weeks after being re-signed in early November. Quinn clearly wanted extra safety depth, especially a safety with some coverage ability.
Godfrey was one of Atlanta's better players during the final two games against Carolina and New Orleans. He played a role in limiting Greg Olsen to a pedestrian game. That was followed up against New Orleans by breaking up multiple passes. His coverage ability gives them a potential backup at free safety. That could benefit Godfrey's quest of securing a place on the roster. At 30 years old, he doesn't have many years left to continue playing in the NFL. The coaching staff will ultimately determine his fate, but a strong pre-season will be needed for the veteran safety. Tackling has always been an issue for him, which won't be tolerated by the coaching staff.