The Falcons saw significant injuries pile up across the roster, but with the benefit of hindsight, none were more damaging or all-encompassing than the injuries at safety. When the Falcons lost Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, they lost two game-changing players who were vital to the defense’s success in very different ways, and that was a significant factor in the defensive disarray that was to follow. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Neal’s injury cost the Falcons their biggest tone-setter in the secondary, and it’s certainly not an exaggeration to say that Allen’s injured reserve stint cost the Falcons their most effective communicator and safety net.
So it’s a surprise that the Falcons were able to recover at all, much less find some form of success at safety. That was partly because Damontae Kazee proved to be as physical and as opportunistic a safety as you could want to take over for Allen, despite some genuine issues in coverage and understandable early struggles getting the defense together. It was also partly because Sharrod Neasman, the very definition of a desperation signing, turned out to be the kind of player he showed flashes of when he first joined the team as a UDFA.
The safety position ought to be a lot more stable in 2019, assuming Neal and Allen recover on schedule from their injuries, but it’s still worth considering what may lie ahead for the Falcons.
Jordan Richards is a free agent but Neasman, Allen, Neal and Kazee are all under contract, making the math pretty easy here. If the Falcons value Richards a lot for his special teams acumen, they certainly can explore re-signing him, but there’s not a ton of evidence that he turned out to be what they were looking for on defense or on teams. Chances are that’s just a seventh round pick lost and we’re done with it.
If the Falcons are serious about giving Kazee some time at cornerback, they may well go scoop up another safety regardless. It’s worth noting that Allen’s road to recovery will be a long one and Neasman is a free agent after 2019, so there’s very little harm in thinking ahead to what happens if you lose the latter and the former doesn’t quite get back on his feet all the way this season, given the severity of the injury.
You can likely rule out the big money options like Earl Thomas, LaMarcus Joyner and Tyrann Mathieu. One of those signings would be an extremely strong indication that the Falcons don’t think Allen is going to return to form, and thus we’ll hope not to see them. If you’re looking for cheaper rentals who can be decent reserves and help out on special teams, there’s a few names worth considering.
The first is Corey Graham, a solid tackler in the secondary who will likely come cheap at age 34 and certainly would be a helpful veteran for the new special teams coordinator. The second is Tre Boston, a starting-caliber player who would provide the Falcons with quality insurance at free safety if they felt they needed it, though he won’t exactly come cheap. And the third could be a Tyvus Powell or a familiar Akeem King, players in their mid-20s who found some limited success in 2018 and could be solid in a pinch.
At the end of the day, I think it’ll be a player like King, a player like Richards, or a late round draft choice to fill out the safety position. Let’s jump into that possibility next.
I’m not going to go in over my head and pretend I know who the Falcons might be looking at for the safety position on the third day of the draft, but I do know they’ve made hay with fifth rounders who spent time at cornerback in college (both Allen and Kazee) and undrafted guys (Neasman), so I don’t think you can rule out the team trying to catch lightning in a bottle again. We’ll have a better idea of who they might be looking at as we get closer to the draft, but certainly bear in mind that it’s a legitimate possibility late.
The preferred outcome
So much depends on health, so let’s talk as though everyone’s going to be spiffy come the season opener. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal will be the starters, Damontae Kazee will get some time as the third safety, and Sharrod Neasman will be the fourth safety and a core special teamer moving forward. That’s a group I’m extremely comfortable with, and with Kazee moonlighting at cornerback, I would like to see the Falcons bring back Akeem King or sign Corey Graham as their fifth option for 2019. If Allen and Neal can stay healthy, that’s a group I’d roll with.
The likely outcome
The Falcons get Neal back for the season opener and Allen has to be a bit more eased in for the first couple of weeks, necessitating some time for Kazee at free safety. Otherwise, the position plays out with Neasman as the fourth safety and a rookie filling out the back end of the roster, giving the Falcons a very solid group with a lot of youth for now and the future.