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Falcons training camp battles: The reserve safety scuffle

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You’ve got several players contending for a couple of spots behind recuperating starters Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Falcons didn’t take their issues at safety last year lightly. They had added Jordan Richards for his special teams acumen and had Damontae Kazee, which seemed like plenty until the Falcons improbably lost both their starters. Kazee largely thrived but Richards struggled to the point where Sharrod Neasman had to return and ride to the rescue, and heading into this year the Falcons had jettisoned Richards and elected to move Kazee to cornerback.

That explains the rash of signings. The Falcons added former Chief Chris Cooper, former Cowboy J.J. Wilcox, former Titan Jason Thompson, and undrafted free agents Parker Baldwin, and they already had Neasman and Ryan Neal on board. The team is clearly hoping that competition will give them 2-3 quality reserves when the dust settles,

How will those competitions shake out, though?

The contenders

Sharrod Neasman, 27, entering 3rd season with Atlanta

Neasman has quietly been a good, useful player ever since he arrived as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He’s a competent tackler, rarely embarrasses himself in coverage, and carries legitimate special teams value. When he took over the strong safety gig (by and large) from Richards, it’s not a coincidence that the Falcons saw better safety play.

For all that, though, Neasman does not appear to be a favorite of the coaching staff. The team decided not to tender him a contract at all following the 2017 season, which meant that Neasman spent a summer in New Orleans before the Falcons broke glass because of emergency and brought him back. He heads into the 2019 season with plenty of competition for a backup gig, too.

For all that, he ought to be a favorite for a spot, either as Keanu Neal’s direct backup or the team’s fifth safety. His well-rounded game and familiarity with the defense—including as a member of a true Dan Quinn defense back in 2016—make him an easy fit.

Chris Cooper, 25, entering 1st season with Atlanta

By virtue of his athleticism alone, Cooper was worth a look. He’s not made it on the field in an NFL game just yet, but he has solid size and is drawing early rave reviews from the coaching staff for what he’s done on the practice field. If that carries over to training camp and preseason, he’s probably the early favorite for reserve free safety duties.

J.J. Wilcox, 28, entering 1st season with Atlanta

Wilcox has 77 games and 39 career starts under his belt, making him easily the most experienced contender here. In his heyday with Dallas, where he started parts of four seasons, he was a bruising hitter who was capable of holding his own in coverage.

What’s not clear is what Wilcox offers now. He’s still just 28 years old and has a track record to fall back on, but he’s played in just 19 combined games the last two years and hasn’t had much in the way of an opportunity to showcase his skills. If he’s not a liability in coverage and can still lay the wood, he can probably hang on based on his veteran savvy.

Jason Thompson, 25, entering 1st season with Atlanta

Another intriguing 25-year-old flier. Heading into the 2017 draft, Thompson was the talk of some quarters of the draftosphere due to his elite athleticism. He’s since bounced around to five teams, with the Packers being the latest to dump him back in April. Dan Quinn loves himself some urgent athleticism, and if the Falcons can coax something out of Thompson that other teams haven’t, he could be legitimately interesting. Chances are that won’t happen in the short-term, which is why I suspect Thompson might be ticketed for the practice squad in 2019.

Parker Baldwin, 22, undrafted free agent

Baldwin follows Kazee from San Diego State. Stunningly, he’s a good athlete for the position, and carries a reputation for being a very physical player. Like Thompson, he probably is mixing in for a practice squad spot in his rookie season, but the Kazee connection, caliber of college career, and measureables add up to a player worth keeping an eye on.

Ryan Neal, 23, entering 2nd season with Atlanta

Last but definitely not least. Neal has a leg up in some fashion on just about everyone on the roster except maybe Neasman, as he’s young, showed he could play special teams late in the 2018 season, and has been around this team for a bit. Whether that all adds up to a reserve who can stick is an open question, but Neal showed a nose for the ball in college and is another big hitter, so he’s certainly going to be in play for a spot.

The winners are...

I don’t know if the Falcons are going to keep four or five safeties, but I’m assuming it’ll be five at the moment until we see just how healthy Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are. If that’s the case, I think you’ll see Chris Cooper as the reserve free safety, J.J. Wilcox as the reserve strong safety, and Neasman as the all-purpose fifth safety and special teamer of the group. That gives the team a good mix of experienced players and quality athletes, and they can stash Baldwin, Neal or Thompson (or two of them, I suppose) on the practice squad for further depth.

That isn’t the most inspiring depth chart, but it’s a good one for a Falcons team that hopefully won’t have to worry as much about the health of their starters in 2019.