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The Ricardo Allen question

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It’s not even a question, really.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Few players were as divisive in 2016 as Ricardo Allen, who started 16 games in the regular season, three in the postseason, and posted 90 tackles and two interceptions (plus another in the playoffs) along the way. You could certainly quibble with his coverage choices at times—we did so at various points in the season—but it was at worst a solid season for a young, improving player.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that given the strong desire for either a high round draft pick like Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers or the addition of Georgia native and impending free agent Eric Berry. I’m not saying that it’s impossible that the Falcons would pony up to get an elite player at free safety, but with a Desmond Trufant extension looming, a Robert Alford extension recently completed, and strong players like Jalen Collins, Brian Poole and of course Keanu Neal dotting the secondary, a massive upgrade at Allen’s position doesn’t feel like a priority. He’s a good player who has done fine work for Atlanta.

So here’s the Ricardo Allen question: Is he going to start in 2017?

The answer to that is not a simple yes, despite all my preamble, but it’s a strong probably. The bigger question is not whether Allen will return and be set to compete for a starting job—he’s an exclusive rights free agent and will be in Atlanta—but whether that competition amounts to a serious threat to his job or not. Right now, the in-house candidates are impending free agent Kemal Ishmael, who profiles more as an extremely useful backup and special teamer, and Sharrod Neasman, the impressive 2016 UDFA who didn’t get a ton of playing time for the Falcons. Throw in Brian Poole, I suppose, if you think a position change might be in the offing for him. Poole would make an intriguing safety given his physicality, and Neasman is a player I think could eventually muscle his way into a starting conversation, but it would be a stretch to declare either a favorite over Allen.

So here’s a prediction: Allen is the starting free safety for one more season, and he can lock it up long-term with further improvement this year. I think the possibility of Poole moving over needs to be acknowledged, and it’s possible he could wind up being a long-term solution at the position. Perhaps the Falcons will surprise us all and invest another high round draft pick at safety, where Dan Quinn loves to have elite players, but I think they’re likely to focus their efforts on the trenches.

So Allen it is. Let’s see if the team gives him a camp battle worth remarking upon.