With the 2018 season mercifully in the rearview mirror, we can look back and reminisce as we wait for the NFL season to greet us once again in September.
For the few past few weeks I’ve been counting down the five best offensive players of 2018 for the Falcons. This new series will do the same thing, but focus on what was the weaker side of the ball for the Birds this year — the defense.
Devastating injuries to start the campaign weren’t overcome, as Atlanta fielded a putrid 28th-ranked defense in the NFL. Still, even throughout the struggles, contributors stuck out from the crowd, and at least gave Atlanta a chance on the defensive end.
Here is the second-best defensive player for the Atlanta Falcons from this past season.
2) Damontae Kazee
A relatively obscure fifth round pick in 2017, Damontae Kazee showed up ready to play following his rookie season, and It’s hard to think of a single player who took better advantage of his opportunity in 2018 than the San Diego State alum.
Kazee turned heads in the preseason — he registered a team-high 11 tackles in the first preseason game, and then got a pass defensed and an interception of Patrick Mahomes in his only drive played of the second preseason game. Kazee made it impossible for coaches to ignore him, going from a player fighting for a role on the team to a defensive standout.
When the regular season began, Kazee had carved out his role as the primary backup free safety and immediately got a bump in play time when starting strong safety Keanu Neal sustained a season-ending injury in the first game of the year. Kazee played 34 snaps in the first game, 14 snaps (because of ejection) in the second game, and 72 snaps as the starting SS in the third game.
After Ricardo Allen sustained his own season-ending injury at the end of Week 3’s matchup against New Orleans, Kazee was thrust into the starting FS role, and he never looked back.
Kazee was stellar in coverage, and absolutely stellar in Dan Quinn’s scheme which puts a drastic importance on the free safety, who essentially plays as a center fielder in his zone defense. The San Diego State man registered seven interceptions, which lead the league.
Kazee graded out as Atlanta’s second-best defensive player by Pro Football Focus (not counting Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who played 30 snaps all season) with a 77.9 rating. He also had an 82.7 coverage grade, which was the best on the team (again, not counting Wreh-Wilson).
The second year man was third on the team with 65 tackles, proving himself to be more than just a one-dimensional player at the safety position.
The durability was also impressive, in an Atlanta defense which had players seemingly dropping like flies at one point — Kazee was second on the defense with 991 total snaps played. He would have gone over 1000 had he not gotten ejection in Week 2’s game against Carolina.
Moving forward, the Falcons know that they have an absolute gem in Damontae Kazee, whom they stole in the fifth round of the 2017 draft.
We don’t know if Ricardo Allen will be back at 100% to start the new season — an Achilles tear is a heavy injury — If he’s not, then Kazee will slot in as the starting FS. If he is back, then the coaching staff will still find a spot for Kazee, where he’ll play as many snaps as possible (maybe nickel corner; maybe they move him around all over the secondary). Quite frankly, they don’t have a choice with how dominant Damontae Kazee has proven to be.