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Atlanta must consider S Eric Reid in wake of Keanu Neal injury

It’s a move that could make life a lot easier for Atlanta.

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons lost Thursday night to the Philadelphia Eagles. That they can live with.

But they lost someone key to their defense’s success that they really can’t afford to live without.

Falcons S Keanu Neal has torn his ACL and will miss the 2018 season. It’s a devastating loss for this defense-on-the-rise and will have ramifications on how this unit comes together in 2018. They’re still loaded with talent and can be a great unit, but they’ve got to replace Neal’s contributions somehow.

Sophomore Damontae Kazee feels like the obvious candidate, though he’s by nature a free safety. ESPN’s Adam Schefter notes that Kazee’s the next man up for the gig.

We know what Kazee can do as a tackler and he didn’t look bad in coverage against Philly. Even so, how he’d fare against the run long-term has to come into the discussion early, particularly with how the run defense faltered after Neal’s exit.

LB Kemal Ishmael filled in admirably when Neal went down with injury for a few weeks in 2016, though he’s transitioned to linebacker and struggles in coverage. If you combine Kazee’s coverage abilities with Ishmael’s run-stopping abilities, you might can get away with some decent play there this season, if nothing special.

Plus, consider that the team moved Ricardo Allen to the strong side and let Kazee play the free side after Neal’s exit. If you’re wondering about Ron Parker, he’s back in Kansas City. Still, a realistic candidate is out there.

Former 49ers safety Eric Reid is still a free agent, and if Atlanta is at all serious about this season being one for the Super Bowl, they need to get him to Flowery Branch yesterday.

Reid was a starting safety for San Francisco for the better part of a half-decade, making the Pro Bowl in 2013. He mainly played at free safety out in the Bay, though he transitioned to the strong side in 2017 and had a decent year under a new regime. He might not quite be a star at the position, but he’s a definite starter, and a good one at that.

Other names out there right now include Quentin Demps and Tyvon Branch. Both of those guys are decent, but they are not Reid.

The assumed reason Reid is not on an NFL roster, though, is not because of his talent. We know he’s good. It comes with the National Anthem controversy, and Reid’s decision to kneel to support Colin Kaepernick’s efforts to demonstrate for issues of racial injustice and police brutality during the Anthem’s playing.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank has been vocal about the issue, all at once supporting his players’ right to demonstrate and his desire for all Falcons to stand during the Anthem.

Signing Reid would bring this conversation right to Flowery Branch, though the player has said previously he does not intend to demonstrate this season. He’s also in the midst of a collusion grievance against the NFL.

Despite that, it appears as if he’s still on teams’ radar, as the Titans considered him after Jonathan Cyprien went down with an injury in the summer. They wound up signing former Saints safety Kenny Vacarro. He also talked with the Bengals in April.

Right now, Atlanta’s best path forward is Reid. Kazee and Ishmael together can’t quite match what a vested veteran like Reid can bring to the table.

Will they do it? It’s hard to say. Dan Quinn likes giving young players a chance, and could opt to let Kazee field most of the snaps there. He said in a press conference today that the Falcons don’t have any immediate plans to sign outside safeties, though that can (and maybe should) change.

But you saw the run differentials when Neal left. More preparation with Kazee in the role will help that, but you wonder if the team realizes how close they are to really making waves (despite Thursday’s flop) and how 2018 can’t stop just because of one injury.

Get Reid in the building and let him hold down Neal’s spot, or to allow Kazee and Allen to work at strong safety as needed. No one can replace what Keanu does, but Reid can get them what they need to make it through 2018 and still be a factor in January.

The Falcons withstood CB Brent Grimes’ 2012 season-opening injury to make the NFC Championship; they can withstand this, too. Just get Reid to Atlanta now.