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The case for and against Kemal Ishmael returning to the Falcons in 2018

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Ishmael has been a key special teams cog and useful defender for years. Will he return?

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawk Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Kemal Ishmael is one of the better seventh round success stories in recent Falcons history, if not all of Falcons history. Since becoming the team’s final draft selection out of eight picks in 2013, Ishmael has outlived all but three players from that Falcons class, starting 20 games out 65 and making some very big plays along the way, including an interception returned for a touchdown and five picks over all.

The secret to Ishmael’s success is that he’s an aggressive, hard-hitting safety (and now linebacker) who has always had genuine special teams value. That’s kept him around through a coaching change and aggressive roster additions, including multiple picks added at safety and linebacker.

Now, though, Ishmael is a free agent yet again after the team re-signed him to a one year deal in 2017. Will Ish be back, or will he play for another team for the first time in his career? Here’s the case for and against.

For

Here’s something that should be evident if you’ve been reading this site for any length of time: I love Kemal Ishmael. Especially during the Mike Smith era, he was one of those rare hyper-physical players on the team, and that helped him make plays.

Ishmael is still just 26 years old and is on a far more talented defense now, which makes him a true reserve if he re-signs. What makes him valuable, first and foremost, is that special teams value, as he’s one of the team’s better tacklers there, and a player Keith Armstrong has a ton of trust in. Given the uneven teams performance in 2017, I’m willing to bet that Armstrong will lobby for Ishmael to come back.team’s better tacklers

There’s also the matter of his value as a reserve. LaRoy Reynolds is a fine linebacker and special teamer in his own right, but if you have to choose between him and Ishmael, you would likely factor in that Ish can play both linebacker and safety. That gives you, in essence, a fifth linebacker and fourth or fifth safety for the (likely cheap) price of a single player.

When Ishmael does get in the game, too, he’s still a valuable run defender who will never stop trying to make plays on the ball. He’s not a huge asset in coverage and only has been at times in the past, but he’ll rarely hurt you when he’s in the game.

Against

Ishmael is going to step in at safety and deliver the kind of coverage chops the Falcons expect from their guys in 2018, and he’s clearly well behind Damontae Kazee and perhaps Sharrod Neasman. At linebacker, he lacks the speed and coverage chops of Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and (hopefully) Duke Riley. He’s not, in other words, the ideal reserve for a Dan Quinn defense, even if he’s got the physicality and attitude DQ loves.

Like Reynolds, Ishmael wasn’t enough of an asset on defense or special teams in 2017 to make him a must-keep player. If the Falcons are looking to round out their linebackers corps with a hand-picked draft pick from Quinn, they may elect to let Ishmael move on.

Otherwise, I can’t really argue against Ishmael, frankly. He has value and won’t be expensive.

The Verdict: Yes

There’s not much downside to keeping Ishmael around, something the Falcons surely recognize. He’s a reserve at two positions in a pinch and he’s one of the few reliable veterans on special teams that the Falcons have, and he’ll probably wind up signing for a little over the veteran minimum when all is said and done. Assuming Ish wants to come back, I think it’s likely he will be back, though the team may ultimately wind up making a decision between him and Reynolds.