We’re in the depths of the offseason here at The Falcoholic, and there has been little to nothing in the way of interesting news in ages. So, we’ll have to make some content of our own in the meantime. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be bringing you a new Player Profile series where we’ll take a look at each of the players on Atlanta’s roster. I’ll break down their measurables, past production, and try to project their 2020 season with the Falcons.
We’ll get things started with the projected starters. The fifth group—and final one on defense—will be safety. The Falcons kept things largely the same here heading into 2020, with the lone addition being fourth-round selection Jaylinn Hawkins as a developmental backup for Keanu Neal at strong safety.
Today, we take a closer look at third safety Damontae Kazee, who has been one of the best ballhawks in the NFL since becoming a starter in 2018.
S Damontae Kazee
Contract: $2.2M cap hit in 2020, free agent in 2021
Career Production: 48 games played, 30 games started | 179 total tackles, 3.0 TFL, 4 FF | 13 PD, 10 INT
2019 Production: 16 games played, 14 games started | 74 total tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 FF, 12.9% missed tackle rate | 3 PD, 3 INT, 65.1% completion percentage allowed, 66.3 passer rating allowed
Previous Teams: Drafted 5th round (#149 overall) by the Atlanta Falcons (2017-present)
Perhaps the only legitimately good pick in the Falcons’ 2017 draft class—the jury is still out on Takkarist McKinley and Brian Hill—it’s interesting to remember that Damontae Kazee was originally picked as a CB. Kazee joined a crowded group that featured Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford both playing strong football, and former UDFA Brian Poole manning the slot. Kazee only played about 16% of the snaps on defense in his rookie season, but had a prominent role on special teams.
Looking at Kazee’s athletic traits and college tape, the eventual switch to safety makes a ton of sense. Kazee was never the biggest, strongest, or most athletic CB—although those limitations weren’t much of an issue playing at San Diego State. Instead, Kazee won with his impressive instincts and excellent hands. Kazee was one of college football’s best ballhawks, with 8 INTs in 2015 and 7 INTs in 2016. Although his tackling technique isn’t great, he plays with a lot of physicality and hits hard despite his lack of size.
When both Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen went down with injuries in 2018, Kazee was pressed into action at free safety. He took to the role almost instantly, turning in an exceptional season where he put up 10 PDs and 7 INTs—the latter of which led the NFL. Kazee was initially moved to slot CB to start the 2019 season after the Falcons elected to move on from both Robert Alford and Brian Poole during the offseason, but was forced back into a safety role after Keanu Neal’s injury. For what it’s worth, Kazee looked much better and more comfortable at safety—which is where he is slated to return in 2020.
It remains unclear how exactly the Falcons will deploy their safeties this season. Due to the weakness of Atlanta’s CB depth, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more “Big Nickel” 3-safety sets featuring Neal, Allen, and Kazee this year. It really depends on the style of play the Falcons prefer: Kazee offers more turnover potential, but isn’t as reliable in coverage (and as a tackler) as Allen. Allen also offers more from a leadership perspective. No matter what Atlanta decides, I expect we’ll see a healthy amount of snaps for all three players in 2020.
Projection: Kazee is likely to play the fewest snaps of Atlanta’s three safeties, assuming all three are healthy, but he should still have a sizable role in the secondary. Expect the Falcons to deploy more big nickel sets, particularly against offenses with multiple strong TEs. Kazee should once again challenge for the team lead in interceptions, even if he is no longer a starter.