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The next Falcons regime will have some big decisions to make in the secondary

The Falcons have A.J. Terrell and a lot of question marks heading into next year, despite the youth they’ve stockpiled at cornerback.

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The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but there are cases where the story they tell is pretty irrefutable nonetheless. To set up this piece, let’s talk about one of those stories.

The Atlanta Falcons have one of the worst pass defenses in football, something that has largely been fueled by the secondary. Teams have the 6th-highest average depth of target against Atlanta defenders, the second-most passing yards, and the most passing touchdowns in the entire league, which paints a pretty compelling picture of how large the problem is. While 300 yards is more a big round number than a particularly meaningful one, it also remains telling that this team has not held a team under 300 yards passing in a single game this season.

When you look at the fact that the Falcons have the fourth-highest number of hurries, most quarterback knockdowns, and third-highest number of pressures in the entire NFL despite not having Takk McKinley most of the year (and now not at all) and not getting a ton out of Dante Fowler Jr., it’s clear where the problem lies.

The final seven games will be absolutely critical for everyone vying for jobs next year in the secondary, which is realistically what basically everyone but A.J. Terrell is doing. The next regime is going to have a thin safety depth chart featuring just Ricardo Allen and Jaylinn Hawkins, and will have one very promising second year cornerback and three recent draft picks who have either put virtually nothing on film (Jordan Miller) or have put decidedly mixed things on tape (Kendall Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver). The Falcons have lost games for many reasons and seem to be making small but critical strides defensively, but there’s no getting around that with even with some improvement, the secondary has been a huge weak spot.

What will the Falcons have to weigh next year? In no particular order, here you go:

  • Who is the #2 corner, and is that player on the roster? Darqueze Dennard will be a free agent and isn’t necessarily in the team’s long-term plans, while Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a free agent and would likely re-join only as a backup. That leaves Isiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, and Jordan Miller as legitimate options for the #2 gig, with Oliver and Sheffield being much more likely to be in line for the job.

The problem is neither has been good enough or consistent enough in 2020 to stroll into that role. Oliver has settled in nicely to a slightly reduced role but he was crisped multiple times in the first six or so games of the season, including 4 touchdowns, which is tied for the team “lead” with Terrell and Deion Jones. Sheffield, meanwhile, may still be shaking off some rust from an injury but has played just over half as many snaps as Oliver and has allowed just 27 fewer yards on 16 fewer targets, and the promise he showed in 2019 hasn’t been apparent thus far in 2020. Miller has not even really seen the field yet.

It would be frustrating if the team had to sink another early round pick into the cornerback position one year after drafting Terrell, two years after drafting Sheffield, and three years after drafting Oliver, but I would not rule it out. It’s going to take a hugely productive final seven game stretch from one of these players to make us dispel it.

Beyond the #2 job, I expect some combination of Oliver/Sheffield, Miller, and the new regime’s preferred affordable free agent signing to duke it out on the depth chart.

  • Do the Falcons keep Ricardo Allen? Allen has had his adventures in coverage, particularly in the red zone, but just 46% of the passes being thrown his way are being completed and he has yet to miss a tackle. Allen’s value as an eraser on the back end of the defense has long been undervalued, in my humble opinion, and if he’s not quite the player he was in his brief peak, he’s still a very useful one.

Allen is one of just two safeties under contract next year, and in a vacuum he’d be an ideal bridge player at safety because he’s a proven and outspoken leader and a quality player. The problem is that he’s set to count $8.375 million against the 2021 cap with dead money sitting at just $2.1 million, making him a potential source of significant cap relief for Atlanta.

It’ll come down to money, as things often do, because we know Allen could help next year’s defense.

  • Is Keanu Neal coming back? I don’t expect Jaylinn Hawkins to be ready to step in as a starter next year, given his minimal reps this year and understandable rookie struggles in the games he has played in. I do expect him to be a key special teamer and reserve, but that doesn’t solve the need for a starter.

The question is simply whether the Falcons will bring back Keanu Neal or whether they’ll look outside the organization. Neal has been rounding into his old self in recent weeks, delivering big hits and improving in coverage to the point where he’s a legitimate asset for the defense again. Whether he sticks around will once again likely depend on dollars and what the next regime wants from their safeties, but the chances of him sticking around have probably risen significantly.

These are not the only questions in this secondary, to say nothing of the roster, but there’s very little set in stone for the Falcons heading into 2021. These last seven games will help tell the tale, but don’t be surprised if the secondary wins up being the major focal point of the next general manager and head coach.