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Pre-draft position breakdown: Safety

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With the draft fast approaching, it’s time to take one final look at the roster. Today’s group is safety, where Atlanta has strong starters but also injury concerns. How early should the Falcons prioritize the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

With the 2020 NFL Draft coming up quickly, it’s time to take one final look at the roster before the rookies arrive. The Falcons were fairly active in free agency, addressing some of their most pressing needs and creating some new ones. Over the next week or so, I’ll be taking a look at several of the positions on the roster to determine if the Falcons need to invest resources there in the draft. If you missed any previous entries in the series, you can find them below:

G | EDGE | DT | CB | LB | S

Today, we take a closer look at safety. Atlanta largely kept the unit intact in free agency, bringing back a few depth pieces like Sharrod Neasman and Chris Cooper. This is a weird group for the Falcons, which in theory should be one of the strongest on the roster. However, with injury concerns surrounding Keanu Neal, this position could demand a pick investment sooner than later. Let’s examine the current depth chart.

Current Depth Chart

FS

Ricardo Allen
Damontae Kazee
Chris Cooper

SS

Keanu Neal
Sharrod Neasman
Jamal Carter

When healthy, the Falcons have one of the best safety groups in the league. At FS, it’s unclear who the “starter” will be, although that designation may not be all that important. Ricardo Allen has the most experience is and the more technically sound player in both coverage and run support. He’s also a tremendous leader, both on and off the field, but he’s a fairly average athlete. Damontae Kazee is a excellent ballhawk and strong hitter with good range, but his coverage technique still needs work. Both are likely to play in three safety “big nickel” sets. Chris Cooper is a former UDFA and depth piece with experience at both safety and CB—he’ll get an opportunity to compete for a roster spot in camp.

At SS, the Falcons have one of the premier talents in the league in Keanu Neal. When healthy, Neal is a tremendous enforcer and physical presence in the secondary who brings surprisingly solid coverage ability against TEs. However, Neal has struggled to stay healthy over the past two seasons, missing a ton of games due to season-ending injuries. Sharrod Neasman has played like a solid starter whenever called upon, but Dan Quinn seems to have an issue with playing him. Maybe he’s gotten over it, as the team re-signed Neasman this offseason. Former UDFA Jamal Carter spent the majority of the 2019 season on the Falcons active roster, appearing in 11 games. He’ll be competing for a depth role in camp.

Is it a draft need?

The safety group is a bit of an enigma because of the vast difference in the quality of play when Keanu Neal is in the lineup. With Neal on the field, Atlanta’s defense tends to look significantly better against both the run and pass. With Neal sidelined, things turn towards disaster. One of the biggest issues for Dan Quinn has been finding an adequate replacement for Neal when he misses time. That player would seem to be Sharrod Neasman—who generally fills in admirably whenever called upon—but for some unknown reason, Quinn never wants to start him.

This has gone on for years, and has involved the Falcons trading for players like Jordan Richards (awful) and Jonathan Cyprien (IR after 1 game) instead of simply giving snaps to Neasman. It’s puzzling, to say the least. Knowing Quinn’s propensity for ignoring Neasman and Neal’s uncertain health situation, adding a talented SS to potentially take over for Neal in the future is certainly one of Atlanta’s draft needs. The bigger question would be how highly the Falcons would value such a player with their limited picks and other, perhaps more pressing needs.

At FS, the team is in much better shape. Both Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee can start at FS—and both probably will start alongside each other at various times. They each have different strengths and weaknesses, but together they’re a very good tandem. Chris Cooper is a solid, if relatively uninspiring, depth choice who also offers some CB versatility. I doubt the team will be adding any draft selections here in 2020.

What are your thoughts on Atlanta’s safety group heading into the 2020 NFL Draft? How highly would you prioritize adding a safety? Who are some of your favorite safety prospects for the Falcons?