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Falcons post-2019 roster review, safety edition

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The Falcons are in a bit of a weird place at the safety position, with several strong veteran starters in place but significant injury concerns surrounding both Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at the biggest positions of need for this Falcons team heading into 2020, there are a few obvious ones. EDGE, C/G, and CB probably stand out as the big ones to most fans, with RB and LB also needing some attention. Safety isn’t usually at the top of the list due to the presence of three good veteran players, but a lot of injury issues over the past two seasons have called the depth into question.

Let’s take a closer look at where the Falcons stand at safety heading into free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft.

Starters

Damontae Kazee

2019 Stats: 16 games, 69 tackles, 2 TFL, 13.8% missed tackle rate, 3 INT, 3 PD, 1 FF, 65.1% completions allowed, 66.3 passer rating allowed

Contract: 2021 free agent

After a rocky start to the season playing slot CB, the Falcons eventually moved Kazee back to his previous position of free safety. The improvement in play was drastic, as Kazee wound up having another strong season as the deep defender. Kazee is a natural ballhawk with good range and physical tackling ability, and it seems logical that the Falcons would want to continue playing him where he’s most comfortable.

Ricardo Allen

2019 Stats: 16 games, 84 tackles, 4 TFL, 8.7% missed tackle rate, 2 INT, 8 PD, 69.2% completions allowed, 105.6 passer rating allowed

Contract: 2022 free agent

Coming off a devastating injury in 2018, Ricardo Allen had a bit of a slow start to the season. By the end of the year, Allen looked a lot more like his old self despite being asked to play more in the box after Keanu Neal’s injury. He’s still a reliable tackler and strong veteran leader even if his athleticism is somewhat limited. Allen just had shoulder surgery, but the timeline for recovery shouldn’t affect his availability for OTAs.

Keanu Neal

2019 Stats: 3 games, 14 tackles, 12.5% missed tackle rate, 70% completions allowed, 85.4 passer rating allowed

Contract: 2021 free agent (2020 fifth-year option)

Keanu Neal looked to be starting a promising bounce-back season at strong safety before suffering another season-ending injury. It was devastating to watch, as you could tell how much Neal wanted to be out there with his teammates after missing all of 2018. Neal returns in 2020 on his fifth-year option, which is worth approximately $6.46M. The Falcons seem likely to keep Neal and give him a chance to stay healthy this season, but they could also save a lot of cap space by moving on—or attempting to offer him a cheaper deal.

Reserves

Jamal Carter

2019 Stats: 11 games, 9 tackles, 18.2% missed tackle rate, 1 PD, 54.5% completions allowed, 81.6 passer rating allowed

Contract: 2021 free agent

Dan Quinn was on a mission in 2019: a mission to make sure Sharrod Neasman never got an opportunity to start. One of the players he brought in to make that happen was Jamal Carter. Carter had some promising plays here and there, but struggled overall—particularly as a tackler. That isn’t entirely surprising considering he’s a UDFA, but expecting Carter to serve as anything more than developmental depth at this point is asking a lot.

Chris Cooper

2019 Stats: No stats

Contract: 2021 free agent

Chris Cooper joined the team as a versatile CB/S prospect after going undrafted. He looked decent in the preseason, but didn’t end up making the final roster. Cooper spent the majority of 2019 on the practice squad before being activated just before the final game of the season. He didn’t log any real game action, so it’s hard to say what to expect from Cooper in 2020. He’s likely to be camp competition and will have a chance to catch on as a depth player.

Outlook: Solid in 2020, questionable beyond

If the Falcons walked into the 2020 season with just Kazee, Allen, Neal, and Carter/Cooper as depth, they’d probably be OK. Kazee looks like one of the most intriguing young free safeties in the league, and Allen is dependable in a variety of roles. If Neal can stay healthy, the starting lineup could actually wind up being pretty good. The questions come when you start to look at the depth.

The Falcons would be smart to add another veteran to the mix, and potentially a Day 3 draft pick as well. With Neal’s injury history—and Allen’s, for that matter—Atlanta would be pretty bold to go into the season with no veteran backup behind them. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Falcons bring back J.J. Wilcox, who was impressing in camp before suffering a season-ending injury of his own. A late-round draft pick could also be in the cards.

Much also depends on what the Falcons do with Keanu Neal. If they elect to move on and save his cap space this season, the need for another safety becomes much greater. I still see that as a long-shot based on Quinn’s loyalty to “his guys”, like Vic Beasley in 2019, but it’s not totally out of the question.