Although the Falcons appear to be settled at both safety positions, they have several versatile defensive backs that could potentially transition into a full-time safety role. Keanu Neal surpassed expectations last season as their enforcer. Not many expected him to excel in coverage. The former first round pick was a reliable open field tackler as well. Ricardo Allen received some criticism, despite having a relatively solid season. There are some lingering questions about his long-term status as a starter.
Current Depth Chart
FS: Ricardo Allen
SS: Keanu Neal
Backups: Sharrod Neasman, Damontae Kazee, Quincy Mauger, Jordan Moore, Deron Washington
Potential Options: Brian Poole, Kemal Ishmael
After two consecutive injury-plagued seasons, the Falcons couldn’t rely on William Moore. Dan Quinn targeted Neal during the draft process. Most draft analysts didn’t view Neal as a first-round caliber pick. His inconsistent tackling, awareness, and ability to cover downfield caused some concern. Those doubts were vanquished following Neal’s stellar rookie season.
Despite missing two games, he forced five fumbles and broke up eight passes. Neal was composed in a very demanding role. As a rookie or a veteran, not missing many tackles and still landing crushing hits is a difficult balance to maintain for an entire season. Neal produced several highlight-reel hits, while consistently bringing the ball carrier down at the point of attack. There is no reason why Neal shouldn’t be a cornerstone of the Falcons’ defense for years to come.
It’s difficult to gauge what Quinn is going to do at free safety. Allen is one of the most respected defensive players on the roster. His impressive work ethic deserves appreciation, especially when considering he is entering his third season in the league, while being the third most experienced player in the secondary. Allen isn’t a natural safety either, as he made the positional switch from cornerback in 2015.
Allen is a smart, instinctive player that doesn’t miss tackles or commit glaring mistakes in coverage. Not possessing great speed limits him to a certain extent, and there aren’t many impressive plays from Allen’s resume as a two-year starter. He’s had highlight reel interceptions, however, including picks off Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs.
In a rapidly improving defense filled with promising players, he stands out as one of the few potentially expendable starters. There haven’t been any indications either way about him remaining a starter, so he could face competition as soon as this year.
Fifth round pick Damontae Kazee received some opportunities to play free safety during rookie minicamp. The highly regarded cornerback produced seven interceptions last season at San Diego State. Transitioning into a full-time free safety could work based on his excellent ball skills and strong instincts. His lack of deep speed was highlighted on many scouting reports, which is something that the coaching staff will be watching closely. Brian Poole received some free safety consideration earlier in the off-season. Those plans may have changed, as new defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel seemed adamant about Poole being used as their main nickel corner.
The same can be said about Kemal Ishmael. He is expected to become a full-time linebacker. Based on his success last year, it makes complete sense. Ishamel was outstanding in Atlanta’s upset win over Denver. Does this rule out Ishmael from replacing Neal, if a serious injury occurred? Sharrod Neasman showed some promise in limited snaps. It’s difficult to envision him stepping into a major role, when Ishmael is still on the roster. The former seventh round pick is more than capable of contributing at multiple positions.
Things can drastically change between June and October. Last season proved that Quinn isn’t afraid to make early season changes. Vic Beasley was preparing to play as a strong side linebacker. Moving Tyson Jackson back inside was another expected change. Both off-season plans ended in early October with Philip Wheeler taking the strong side linebacker spot and Jackson lining up as a 5-Tech defensive end. Quinn can be unpredictable with his personnel decisions. His defense is built on speed and versatility. Poole and Ishmael may not be considered as safety options at the moment, but they can make the switch.
Despite all the potential moving pieces, Allen and Neal will likely continue their partnership. Kazee is going to need a remarkable training camp and preseason to supplant Allen. Not all training camp battles originate from the current starter being considered as a liability. Allen has proven to be a dependable starter. With his limited upside and Kazee’s knack for constantly making big plays, it’s understandable why Quinn is weighing his options. A change may happen, but Kazee won’t be rushed into it.