The NFC South may prove to be the NFL’s most competitive division in 2020. That’s ... less than ideal for the Falcons, inasmuch as it will make winning the division difficult. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Falcons will already be battle-tested if they do reach the playoffs.
We’re taking a bird’s eye look at the state of various position groups across the NFC South. Next up: safeties.
Starters: Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee, Ricardo Allen
Backups: Jaylinn Hawkins, Sharrod Neasman
Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal has played in only 4 games since the end of 2017, his second year as a pro. He’s only 24 year old, but it’s anyone’s guess how his surgically-repaired knee and achilles will respond going forward. If he can be close to the same player he was in 2017, the Falcons will get a substantial boost on defense. Ricardo Allen, much like Neal, has to stay healthy to help the Falcons win football games. But he’s well-accustomed to his role as the quarterback of the Falcons defense. The Falcons are lucky to have a third starting caliber safety in Damontae Kazee, who has proven to be an absolute ballhawk during his 3 years as a pro. Jaylinn Hawkins and Sharrod Neasman give the Falcons reliable depth at the safety position, in case Neal and Allen can’t stay healthy.
Starters: Juston Burris, Tre Boston
Backups: Jeremy Chinn (for now), T.J. Green
The Panthers will likely start Juston Burris at strong safety and Tre Boston at free safety in 2020. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has stated publicly that he expects his safeties to play their fair share in the box. That may prove to be a problem for Boston, a top 15 safety who regularly rubs some NFL fans (including Panthers fans) the wrong way. While Boston excels in coverage, he’s one of the worst tackling safeties in the league. Burris has all of 11 career starts to his name, so he still has a lot to prove. But he’s from Carolina and he has a versatile skill set that apparently caught the Panthers’ attention. Second round draft pick Jeremy Chinn is going to get his opportunities early and often; and there’s a lot to like about the rookie. T.J. Green, another former 2nd round draft pick, will look to carve out a role that keeps him in the NFL.
Starters: Malcolm Jenkins, Marcus Williams
Backups: C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Saquan Hampton
The Saints’ addition of Malcolm Jenkins was pure genius. There’s a reason he’s gone to 2 of the last 3 Pro Bowls, and it’s not because he’s bad at football. They were going to feel the absence of Vonn Bell, so they had to do something—and do something they did. Marcus Williams has a knack for screwing up in big moments, overshadowing respectable production over his 3-year career in New Orleans: 11 interceptions, 26 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. C.J. Gardner-Johnson took on a bigger role on defense as last season went on, and the Saints relied heavily on him in the slot. To his credit, he responded, playing well against the pass and as a run defender. Saquan Hampton is another 2nd year player that flashed as a rookie; he’ll look to showcase his deep coverage skills and solid tackling.
Rookie Antoine Winfield, Jr.’s versatility is going to get him immediate playing time, likely in a starter role. As NFL pedigree goes, it doesn’t better than Winfield’s. (His father, Winfield, Sr., played 191 games in the NFL.) Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will deploy Winfield at both safety positions and he’s likely to play some corner as well. At strong safety, the Bucs will host an open competition, with Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards, and Justin Evans all in the mix. This group has a lot of potential, but they ain’t there yet.
How would you rank these groups, Falcoholics? Which NFC South team has the best situation at safety?