There was some speculation that the Falcons would put Damontae Kazee back at safety, or that they’d roll forward with Kemal Ishmael, Sharrod Neasman, or both with Keanu Neal out for the season. The latter possibility seemed at least plausible given the way the team handled their safety woes a year ago, which was mostly with the guys they already had in the building.
Happily, it appears the Falcons aren’t going to be content to stand pat this time around, not with such a critical season underway and off to a lackluster start.
With Keanu Neal lost for the season, the #Falcons are bringing in veteran safeties George Iloka and T.J. McDonald for a look today, sources say.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) September 24, 2019
The usual note of caution applies here: Iloka and McDonald don’t have jobs at this point because broadly they were not viewed as one of the 96-128 top safeties in football, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Both, however, are experienced veterans with good football in their recent past.
McDonald is particularly intriguing because he was practicing in a hybrid linebacker/safety role for the Dolphins this summer before he was cut, and is just 28 years old. He literally started 14 games in 2018, snagged three interceptions, and turned in a solid campaign per Pro Football Focus, so the expectation if he signed is that he’d get up to speed and compete to start right away. He’d likely be my preferred signing, not that they’re going to ask me.
Iloka is a guy I’ve liked for a very long time, but his best football came a little while ago, when he was still a tremendous safety for the Bengals. He had a good year as recently as 2017 with the Bengals, but the team moved on from him and he spent last year primarily as a reserve for the Vikings, snagging just one start. He seems like he should still have plenty in the tank and has a track record of quality play, so it’s not like the team adding him over McDonald would make me unhappy in the slightest.
That’s actually the happy note here: Either of these guys would be a likely upgrade over what the Falcons currently have, and would enable them to keep Kemal Ishmael in a third safety role (perhaps not immediately, but in the near future) and let Sharrod Neasman mix in as a reserve and core special teamer. I’m genuinely hopeful they’ll sign either Iloka or McDonald and that we’ll see the smallest possible dropoff from Neal, though that dropoff is still unfortunately quite large.