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Do the Falcons need to look for new starting safeties in 2021?

It may be time to look towards a revamp in the secondary.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Let me get this out of the way first: as a fan of this team, I absolutely love Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen. Neal’s first two seasons showed a dynamic, hard-hitting player with coverage chops to boot. He was so fun to watch in those first few years, and I can still remember the hush coming over the Georgia Dome crowd when he hit Willie Snead so hard, many of us thought he had killed him.

Rico has been the kind of leader teams dream of. The once cut fifth round pick stunned us all when Dan Quinn moved him to free safety and he blossomed in the role. His relentless work ethic and passion for the game made him a natural field general and he was a big part of why the 2017 defense was one of the Falcons better ones over the last 15 years.

Still, the NFL is a cruel mistress. She courts you one minute and abandons you the next. And what this ultimately comes down to is injuries. It’s not about the current injuries— Ricardo’s elbow and Neal’s hamstring. It’s about the one they share in common.

The ruptured achilles tendon.

Performance realities

The 2018 season was a nightmare for both of these guys. Neal went out early on with the torn ACL and Allen with the achilles tear. At the time, I knew very little about the second type of injury, but it may actually be the more devastating of the two. Almost all players can return to full speed after tearing their ACL, though recovery times vary wildly.

The same is not true with an achilles tear.

For a very detailed write-up about this, you can read this article. Here’s the TL:DR version: only 1 out of 3 players returns from an achilles tear and almost all of them come back at reduced performance levels. If you’re dealing with top-tier elite athletes, that reduced performance may still be “good enough.”

With Neal and Allen though, the trend couldn’t be any more clear. Both guys are clearly not back to their 2017 versions. A quick look at their PFF scores shows a trend none of us want to see.

Ricardo Allen ranked in the 70s and 80s from 2016 to 2018. However, since his achilles rupture in 2018, his scores have dropped significantly. His 2019 season was a disaster, with a 58.6 score overall and a 57.3 grade in coverage. For reference, his coverage scores from 2016 to 2018 were 85.8, 71.1 and 80.2. This year? It’s a horrid 43.1, with an overall grade of 49.8 in 2020.

Neal has similarly poor trends. His 2016 and 2017 seasons saw him scoring in the low 70s overall, with coverage grades of 80.3 and 64.1 respectively. His brief return in 2019 saw him with a 43.1 overall grade (42.0 in coverage) and in 2020 his 63.8 overall grade (61.0 in coverage) has him in poor company league-wide.

A possible alternative

Let me add this alternative to consider: it’s also possible that poor coaching and/or the poor performance of surrounding players is contributing to the struggle of Neal and Allen. Over the past few seasons the team moved on from players like Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Brian Poole. While Alford was penalty prone, he was still relatively reliable in coverage. Trufant and Poole were underappreciated and were - at minimum - stable players. Now, the team has a bunch of young guys who are understandably struggling and that could definitely be having an impact on the safeties behind them.

Likewise, the shuffling around of defensive coordinators the past several years may not be helping either. The team jettisoned Marquand Manuel after 2018 (despite his very good 2017 coaching stint) and the 2019 disaster of Quinn as HC/DC has resulted in a two headed monster of Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris sharing defensive play-calling this year.

Final thoughts

While I do think the alternatives above are a possible explanation, I think the likelier scenario is that both players suffered an injury that is statistically very difficult to fully recover from. And I hate it. I hate that two guys that I love seeing on the field have had their careers side swiped by an injury that is so unforgiving. It’s even more frustrating when you realize Allen is only 28 and Neal just 25. These guys should be in their prime, not the talk of being a part of the past.

Yet, here we are in 2020 with a dismal secondary and two of our starters out due to more injuries. The NFL is cruel and I’m mad as hell, even if there’s little to be done about it. On top of it all, Damontae Kazee - who has been effectively a starter to this point in 2020 but has also struggled to be an impact player - will also be a free agent, so the team will also have to decide if he is in their long-term plans and a potential starter if they do move on from Neal and Allen. If not, the Falcons may effectively be starting over beyond Jaylinn Hawkins.

What do you think? Is it time for the team to consider moving on from one or both of these guys?