We move past special teams, which has been transformed more or less wholesale, and into safety. The team did not do the same level of earth-shattering work here, but the questions that plague the position are at once both simpler and more troubling, because they rely on the availability of their two best players there.
You’re looking at the same two starters the Falcons have employed since 2016, with a health-related twist.
Keanu Neal plays football like a gladiator plays tag, which means injury was going to be a factor for him at some point. He suffered an injury in Week 1 and missed the entire season, and while his rehab is going well by all accounts, we don’t yet know if he’ll be 100% Week 1, or what it would mean if he wasn’t. When healthy he’s one of the league’s better young strong safeties with his tone-setting physicality and ability, and if he’s back to form, the Falcons are all set at the position.
A similar story unfolded for Ricardo Allen, who had been durable and reliable before a catastrophic Achilles injury cost him most of the year. That double whammy decimated the Falcons’ backend, with Allen being a major loss because of his comfort helping to organize the defense, his ability to make plays on the ball and open field tackles when things went awry, and that aforementioned reliability. If he’s healthy he’s a chronically underrated defender, and if he’s all set, the Falcons are also all set at his position.
The problem is that we don’t know if either of these players will be fully healthy to start the season, with Allen’s Achilles ailment looming particularly large in my anxieties. The Falcons have quietly piled up safety depth all offseason long in the form of veterans J.J. Wilcox, Chris Cooper, and Afolabi Laguda, and they already had Sharrod Neasman and maybe-cornerback Damontae Kazee under contract. That suggests that they’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, which is smart.
If these two are healthy, as I suggested above, this is one of the league’s better safety duos and a major part of what has the potential to be a terrific 2019 Falcons secondary. The uncertainty is what’s killing me.
As mentioned above, the Falcons have stripped their safety depth down to studs and rebuilt it.
If Kazee does stick at cornerback as the team has suggested, he’ll likely only occasionally mix in at safety, if at all. If not, though, it’s possible he’s the starter at free safety on Week 1, depending on Allen’s progress. Kazee wasn’t perfect there a year ago but was an aggressive ballhawk of a safety who was one of the team’s few defensive bright spots, so if the team ends up keeping him there, it’s an understandable decision and one that makes the safety group stronger.
From there, the options are less proven. Neasman turned in solid play down the stretch and is an affordable player with a well-rounded game that would seem to make him well-suited to be (at worst) the team’s fifth safety, but the Falcons have added three safeties since the offseason began, signalling they’re not going to lock him into a spot.
J.J. Wilcox is a thumper with the requisite ability against the run and a couple of seasons’ worth of starting experience, which makes him a solid addition to the group and a strong favorite to be Keanu Neal’s direct backup. His coverage skills won’t make you forget about Jordan Richards, however, and if he gets substantial run that could prove to be a problem as the season grinds on. As a proven veteran backup with some legitimately good play under his belt in the past, though, Wilcox makes sense.
The other two additions are wildcards in comparison. Chris Cooper has bounced around in his short NFL career to this point and hasn’t gotten any game action yet, making him pure projection for those of us trying to figure out this depth chart. The team has talked about him as if he could step in and approximate the role Damontae Kazee was meant to play last year, backing up Allen and playing nickel cornerback if the situation got dire, and his athleticism suggests the Falcons have something to work with. Whether he’ll fare well there or even has a particularly great shot of making the roster, especially if Kazee doesn’t make the full-time switch to corner, we just can’t say yet.
Afolabi Laguda feels like a practice squad candidate for this time given their other additions, but he has the size, raw speed, and physicality to be interesting over the long haul. The Falcons showed some interest in him during the 2017 pre-draft process, so I wouldn’t bet against him, but like Cooper we don’t have enough to go on to suggest he’s destined for much of anything just yet.
To round out the group, the Falcons have Ryan Neal, who offers physicality and potentially a little positional versatility in his own right, and former Kazee college teammate Parker Baldwin, who is a legitimately interesting player in his own right. It’s fair to say that Laguda, Neal, and Baldwin are probably fighting over (at most) a couple of practice squad spots when all is said and done, with Wilcox, Neasman and Cooper in the mix for a couple of backup spots.
Everything depends on the health of Allen and Neal, if we’re being honest. The Falcons have set themselves up to have a real battle for backup jobs that hopefully the best 2-3 men will win, which will hopefully mean they aren’t scrambling madly to assemble depth in case of injury like they were in 2018, when Neasman had to return and offer some stability to the group. But if Allen and Neal aren’t healthy, and you’re turning to Kazee/Cooper and Wilcox/Neasman for multiple weeks, it’s going to put a dent in the defense’s outlook. That’s less a knock on those guys than an acknowledgement of just how important Allen and Neal are to making this defense work as best it can.
All we can do now is take a deep breath, hope for health, and hope that the fires of competition lead to the best possible depth chart at safety. The Falcons have enough big picture questions on defense to know that they can ill-afford to be without either of their starting safeties for very long.