It’s awful and depressing that we’re even writing this, just a little over a year after Keanu Neal last suffered a season-ending injury, but it appears we’re back in the same boat again. When Neal went down with what’s reportedly an Achilles injury against the Colts, it looked very bad, and the news has not gotten better since then.
That leaves the Falcons scrambling at safety yet again. They were supposed to roll out some combination of Ricardo Allen, Neal, Kemal Ishmael, and Sharrod Neasman this year, but the Neal injury is going to open up a roster spot Atlanta will have to fill in short order. Life and tight end coverage must roll on.
With that in mind, I thought it was worthwhile to see who is out there on the open market and whether there’s anyone who might have a serious shot at pushing past Ishmael and/or Neasman for the starting gig. I’d expect Ishmael to get first crack at it—he’s the next man up, judging by Sunday’s game—with Neasman mixing in as needed.
Here we go, with a look at a couple of big names, a couple of familiar faces, and a couple of potential quality options.
Berry is always the first name to come up when there’s even a whiff of a safety injury, including after J.J. Wilcox’s season-ending one earlier this summer. Much of that has to do with pedigree, as Berry is a five-time Pro Bowler who earned that honor as recently as 2016, putting together several superlative campaigns with the Chiefs.
Those days are long gone, however. Berry made an inspiring comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 and the Chiefs gave him a big extension after his awesome 2016 season, but he ruptured his Achilles in the first game of the 2017 season and missed the rest of the year. In 2018, he dealt with a bone spur in his Achilles (yikes) and missed all but three games, two in the regular season and one in the playoffs. He has not been close to fully healthy in two seasons, and the fact that he’s still a street free agent now indicates extreme concern from teams with the idea that he can be a healthy contributor going forward.
A Berry signing would be a flier based on a name and past greatness, and unless NFL teams have been missing something since March, he’s unlikely to be a major contributor for this defense. He’s worth a workout, but this is not the direction I expect the team to go in.
Probably another health question mark here, but Searcy was a capable tackler and useful part-time starter as recently as 2017, when he did fine work with the Titans. He got in two games last year with the Panthers, amassing five tackles as a starter, before going on injured reserve with a concussion immediately after. The Panthers cut him back in May.
If he’s healthy—and as with Berry, it’d probably behoove the Falcons to find that out—Searcy is one of the more capable reserve strong safeties on the market, and certainly one of the most experienced options. If he is healthy he’s got a better chance than just about anybody else on this list of actually taking on a starting role for Atlanta, if things go sideways.
McDonald was purged in Miami’s great offseason of tanking, as the AFC East team decided to strip down to the bolts and try to get approximately 30 first round picks to rebuild the roster. That seems to be going well—at least by the standards of those kinds of efforts—but McDonald was an unfortunate casualty.
Over the summer, McDonald played a hybrid linebacker/safety role after spending 2017 and 2018 starting at safety. He started 14 games just a year ago, picking three passes, and has ample experience at strong safety to draw on. Berry and Norris are probably more established names, but given McDonald’s dabbling at linebacker and history of relatively solid play, he’d probably be the man on this list I’d be most excited about the Falcons actually picking up. If the Falcons are leery of Ishmael and Neasman as starting options—and they may well be—he may be the best option available.
The well-traveled Graham will always have a spot in my heart because he played for my alma mater, but he’s been a useful player throughout his career at both safety spots and at cornerback. He wound up starting nine games for the Eagles last year and remains a versatile, quality player, though his play is slipping a little bit at age 34. If special teams matters and the Falcons are looking for a guy they can plug in at multiple spots in the secondary, Graham would make a nice stopgap.
Martin has the advantage of being familiar with this defense—he just played in it over the summer as a reserve—and that’s about it. Familiarity may be what Atlanta’s looking for if they’re fairly comfortable with the guys they have. If they’re looking for more special teams value, though, they might turn to...
You’re laughing, aren’t you? I know you are.
Richards is a quality special teamer and was certainly better toward the end of his tenure in Atlanta on defense than he was when he first took over the gig for Keanu Neal, but overall he was not an inspiring option for the 2018 Falcons team. The fact that the Falcons know him well, that he can play on teams in a pinch, and that he’s probably not going to be a complete tire fire in limited snaps might just get him signed. Don’t say I didn’t prepare you for this.
You’ll likely have gathered by this list that there’s simply not a lot out there. The Falcons can roll the dice on experienced, formerly quality veterans like Berry and Searcy and hope for good health and a return to form, or they can bring on a guy like Martin or Richards who at least has some familiarity with what Atlanta does on defense. Any way you slice it, barring a move to safety for another defensive back, Kemal Ishmael and Sharrod Neasman are going to be headed for large roles on the defense going forward.
I like both of those guys, but the loss of Neal is going to be keenly felt.