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The Falcons need to bench Jordan Richards immediately

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One of the most baffling personnel decisions of Dan Quinn’s tenure as head coach has been the insistence on starting Jordan Richards at SS. It’s past time that mistake was corrected, as the Falcons have far better options on the roster.

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

If you’ve read any of my tweets or listened to any episodes of The Falcoholic Live—which is a great show, by the way—then you know my feelings on SS Jordan Richards. The Falcons traded a conditional 7th-round pick for Richards to the Patriots just before the start of the 2018 season after parting ways with veteran S Ron Parker. Richards was never expected to start—maybe he’d play a little special teams or fill in for a snap or two if Keanu Neal needed a breather.

That strategy lasted all of one week, with Keanu Neal suffering a torn ACL and ending up on IR. All of the sudden, Jordan Richards was our starting strong safety with absolutely nobody behind him on the roster. As Patriots fans warned us, Richards is...not good. He’s an awful tackler and he lacks the instincts and technique to be an asset in coverage. The only thing he has going for him is solid athletic ability—which is probably the reason why Quinn and Dimitroff were interested in the first place. For reference, here’s Richards’ spider graph from Mockdraftable:

We’ve now seen Richards start five (!!) games, and he has looked abysmal in every single one of them. Horrible angles. No power in his tackling, which has resulted in a number of highlight reel plays for his opponents. A complete lack of coverage ability or instincts—the Falcons are forced to play LB De’Vondre Campbell in coverage on TEs almost exclusively. After watching all those games, I’m not even sure that Richards does anything well.

The Falcons appeared to recognize this deficiency a few weeks ago when they brought in two safeties to—allegedly—compete with Richards: Keith Tandy, who has extensive starting experience with the Bucs, and Sharrod Neasman, who was Neal’s backup in 2017. Despite Richards faceplanting in every single one of the last five games—can you remember a single positive play that he was a part of?—Quinn has refused to make a change at SS outside of a handful of snaps against the Steelers (where Neasman came in).

The logic behind this defies all reason. Tandy is a proven starter who actually graded out pretty well according to PFF, and the team clearly had enough trust in Neasman to make him Neal’s primary backup last season. So why has Richards continued to start, virtually unchallenged?

We’ve seen Quinn make some changes to the LB corps after Duke Riley struggled early. First, Riley began to split snaps with rookie Foye Oluokun and veteran Bruce Carter. Now, it appears that Riley has taken a back seat to those two, and is playing occasionally in nickel packages. That approach makes sense—give the young player a chance to fight for his job, but make adjustments if he falters. It was clear that the team needed the veteran experience of Carter at times, and Oluokun has shown some early promise.

At SS, we’ve seen none of that tinkering. Against the Steelers, we saw Neasman come in for two drives before the half—two drives where the Falcons held the Steelers to zero points. After halftime, Richards was returned to the starting lineup. He and the rest of the defense were immediately victimized in what was the worst performance of the year for Atlanta on both sides of the ball. Then, in Week 6, Richards started once more, and still played the vast majority of snaps at SS.

Why is Quinn so insistent on playing Richards? Why can’t we give Tandy or even Neasman a shot at the job? It’s so glaringly obvious that Richards is a huge liability that other teams have been targeting him since Week 3. He’s one of the biggest reasons that the Falcons can’t stop the run, and he’s forcing the team to rely on Campbell in coverage against TEs—which hasn’t been great, on the whole.

I’ve heard the angle that Tandy is the backup free safety, which at least makes some kind of sense. If Kazee were to leave the field, there would be nobody available to replace him, as Neasman is a pure SS. But that doesn’t explain why Neasman—who was apparently good enough to stay on the roster throughout the entire 2017 season as Neal’s only backup—can’t even get more than a drive or two in one game to show that he’s a more reliable option than Richards.

I am clearly fired up about this personnel gaffe—which I believe is the only real issue I’ve had so far with Quinn’s decision-making in terms of defensive players. Normally, I appreciate Quinn’s willingness to throw the young players into the fire to see how they develop. It has worked in the past with guys like Deion Jones and Brian Poole, who had shaky starts to their careers but ended up improving over the course of the season.

The difference here is that we’ve seen no growth from Richards, and the team isn’t at all invested in his future. That conditional 7th-round pick more than likely disappears if the team cuts Richards at any point in 2018—so that’s clearly not a factor in any decisions. He’s being victimized by opposing offenses every single week, and it’s completely obvious on tape. Even the most casual football fan could watch tape of Richards and know that he was a huge weakness.

The solution going forward is clear: the Falcons must bench Richards immediately and give either Keith Tandy or Sharrod Neasman a chance to prove that they’re better options at SS. If neither of those players look better than Richards after a game or two, I’ll be shocked. If that’s somehow the case, I guess I’ll understand why he’s held on to his starting job for so long.

Maybe there is a logical reason for the Falcons to keep playing Richards, but I just don’t see it. If this team is serious about trying to pull off a comeback, they have to be willing to make tough calls with personnel—and quickly. There isn’t time to mess around when every game is a must-win.

What do you think about the Falcons’ insistence on starting Jordan Richards at SS? Do you think he should be benched in favor of Keith Tandy or Sharrod Neasman? Who do you think should win the starting job?