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Early Falcons roster battle discussions: How will safety shake out?

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There’s three spots locked down and a wild scramble for the rest.

NFL: DEC 22 Jaguars at Falcons Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Safety is a position in flux for the Atlanta Falcons. The team has three top options this year with Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, and Damontae Kazee all returning, but they also have zero of those players under contract for 2021 at this point. That means there may be opportunities for young players like Chris Cooper, Jamal Carter, and rookie Jaylinn Hawkins to show they belong in 2020, but the numbers game means not all of them will get that opportunity in the first place.

It’s early yet, but how will the safety position shake out beyond Neal and Allen (the expected starters) and Kazee (who will get a ton of time as a third safety, one expects)?

Here are your contenders.

Jaylinn Hawkins

The rookie safety is expected to carve out a significant role on special teams right away and is an aggressive, physical ballhawk who the team also seems to expect to grow into a defensive role sooner than later. The special teams value will be critical in year one, but it goes without saying that’s he’s going to make this roster unless he shows up playing a different sport.

Sharrod Neasman

The most seasoned contender, Neasman actually started games and acquitted himself well for the Falcons in 2018. Otherwise, he’s played no more than 2% of the defensive snaps in a given year for Atlanta, though he’s emerged as a core special teams player who logged 73% of the ST snaps a year ago. Neasman’s experience and special teams value should absolutely give him an early leg up.

Jamal Carter

Carter came over from the Broncos and wound up playing 10% of the defensive snaps and around 41% of the special teams snaps. He’s a hard hitter who predictably scuffled a bit in coverage in 2019 (along with almost everyone else, frankly) but has some experience in this scheme under his belt now. Again, the special teams value doesn’t hurt, though Neasman has more of it.

Chris Cooper

The Falcons mothballed Cooper for the 2019 season after a solid preseason. He can play cornerback or safety—I’m not sure how well he’ll fare at either, but he’s at least a good athlete—and that versatility could be intriguing as the Falcons figure out their final roster spots.

Ray Wilborn

A 6’4”, 224 pound Ball State product, Wilborn moved to safety from linebacker in 2019 and showcased physicality and length. He’s relatively raw with just a year as a starting safety, but he’s an compelling athlete at minimum and may be someone the team looks to stash and develop.

Prediction: Hawkins makes the roster; Cooper and Wilborn to practice squad

The Falcons have shown less and less interest in using Sharrod Neasman on defense, and I suspect the plan may be to have Hawkins replace him outright on this roster. I also suspect that Hawkins may be replacing Carter, who came to Atlanta with a reputation for physicality and some special teams value, given that the rookie carries much the same reputation.

If that’s the case, Cooper would be the logical candidate for a fifth safety gig if the Falcons keep that many, but assuming Neal is healthy I don’t expect them to. He can hit the practice squad and be ready to join up if the Falcons suffer an injury at cornerback or safety, given that he can play both, and allow the Falcons to use their roster spots elsewhere. If the Falcons are worried about weaknesses on special teams they can and should keep Neasman as their fifth safety, but with the raft of additions in the draft and free agency, I’m not currently expecting it. It’s a bummer for me, one of Neasman’s biggest fans, but I’ll deal.

Wilborn, meanwhile, is a plus athlete for his size and could end up being an interesting reserve for a team that prizes length in the secondary. I think he’ll push his way onto the practice squad if he looks good over the summer.

If things go the way I think they will, chances are good Hawkins will have to step into a fairly significant 2020 role at some point given the injury history at the position. Let’s hope he shines if it comes to that.

What are your expectations?