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Safety targets for the Falcons in 2021 free agency

The Falcons are facing a difficult offseason with a limited salary cap, but they still need to make moves in free agency. We take a look at some potential safety targets to help bolster Dean Pees’ new defense in Atlanta.

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With a new coaching staff and front office in place, the Falcons are going to look and operate a lot differently in 2021. New head coach Arthur Smith is bringing in a new offense, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be shuffling around the defense in what should be an improved Atlanta team this season. Meanwhile, new GM Terry Fontenot brings a ton of pro personnel experience with him from the Saints and is likely to emphasize free agency much more than his predecessor, Thomas Dimitroff.

However, the Falcons will have a difficult offseason ahead of them. The salary cap for 2021 is still being negotiated, with projections ranging from $180M to $185M—or perhaps a little more. That won’t leave Atlanta with much breathing room, considering the team is likely to be anywhere from $20-30M over the cap to kick things off.

I already took a look at some veteran cuts and restructures the Falcons could do to free up nearly $40M in cap space. Those moves, combined with the nearly $6M in 2020 cap they should be able to “roll over”, should be enough to get the team under the cap and sign their draft class even in the lower cap scenarios. If the cap were to end up even higher—or perhaps even match 2020’s $198M number—the Falcons would be in great shape to make a few keep moves.

To prepare everyone for 2021 free agency, I’ll be doing a series of episodes breaking down potential free agency targets. You can check out the previous episodes here:

Part 1: Free Agency Basics
Part 2: Priority Re-signings
Part 3: Free agent RB targets
Part 4: Free agent OL targets
Part 5: Free agent TE targets

Today, I’m shifting my attention to the defensive side of the ball by taking a look at the safety position. Atlanta already has two former starters hitting free agency in Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, and Ricardo Allen is perhaps the most likely cap casualty this offseason. That means the Falcons could be looking at a scenario where they have just Jaylinn Hawkins under contract heading into 2021.

In an effort to support both our loyal readers and our new YouTube audience, I’ve created two versions of this content. If you’re interested in watching the video breakdown of these targets, you can find it here or in the embed below. If you’d like to read about them instead, simply scroll down to continue the article. Whatever your preference, please consider clicking on the video to help us grow on both platforms.

Marcus Williams

2020 team: Saints
2020 stats: 59 total tackles, 4.8% missed tackle rate, 7 PD, 3 INT, 61.5% completion rate allowed, 92.8 passer rating allowed, 79.3 overall PFF rating
2021 OTC valuation: $6-7M/yr

The name that many fans are probably circling is former Saints safety Marcus Williams, and the fit makes a lot of sense. New Orleans is unlikely to be able to bring back many high-priced free agents due to their cap situation, former Saints executive Terry Fontenot is now the GM of the Falcons, and Atlanta is in desperate need of a quality free safety starter.

Despite primarily playing deep for New Orleans, Williams is a very sound tackler and is capable of filling a versatile Cover 2 role if needed. The only drawback would be his price tag, which is probably going to be north of $7M/yr. Atlanta could make a deal like that work if it was heavily backloaded, which would make sense for a player like Williams who will be just 25 years old in 2021.

John Johnson

2020 team: Rams
2020 stats: 105 total tackles, 2.0 TFL, 7.9% missed tackle rate, 8 PD, 1 INT, 69.1% completion rate allowed, 71.9 passer rating allowed, 85.6 overall PFF rating
2020 OTC valuation: $8.4M/yr

If the Falcons are looking to spend a little more to get one of the top safeties on the market, the Rams’ John Johnson could fit the bill. Johnson played a more versatile role in Los Angeles, rotating between deep coverage and box safety looks. He isn’t quite the ballhawk that Williams is, but is a more physical tackler and is more reliable in coverage.

Johnson is likely to be more expensive than Williams, and his $8.4M/yr price tag might even be a little too low for his talents. I wouldn’t be shocked if Johnson is looking for $10M+ when it’s all said and done. Still, Johnson will be just 26 in 2021 and would give Atlanta an elite presence on the back end to help their shaky CB corps (outside of A.J. Terrell). Much like Williams, the deal would have to be heavily backloaded for the Falcons to make it work.

Marcus Maye

2020 team: Jets
2020 stats: 88 total tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 11.1% missed tackle rate, 2 FF, 11 PD, 2 INT, 58.7% completion rate allowed, 80.4 passer rating allowed, 82.8 overall PFF rating
2020 OTC valuation: $10.5M/yr

One of the most versatile safeties in the NFL, Marcus Maye had an excellent season for New York in 2020 without the help of Jamal Adams. Maye is excellent in coverage, can play in the box, and is a strong blitzer (2 sacks in 2020). In short, he could be the perfect chess piece for Dean Pees’ secondary and would thrive in a Cover 2 role. He’s also capable of playing single high if needed for certain looks.

Maye’s versatility probably adds to his price tag, however, as he’s the most expensive safety on this list per OTC’s valuation at $10.5M/yr. It’d be pretty hard for the Falcons to justify that type of money to a safety in a low-cap year unless the cap ends up closer to flat—but it’s not impossible. There’s also the question of whether the Jets will even let Maye walk, as they have plenty of space to re-sign him if they wish (over $67M in space).

Malik Hooker

2020 team: Colts
2020 stats: 7 total tackles (only 2 games played due to injury)
2020 OTC valuation: $1.1M/yr

If the Falcons are looking for a high-upside buy-low candidate, the Colts’ Malik Hooker could fit the bill. Hooker is an exceptional athlete at single-high safety and has put together two good seasons...when healthy. But his rookie season was cut short by an injury, and so was 2020. That Achilles injury will probably lead to Hooker taking close to a veteran minimum deal in 2021.

Hooker has come back from tough injuries before in his career, and put together two average or better campaigns in his healthy seasons (2018 and 2019). He shouldn’t be relied upon as a starter this season, but he could be a valuable piece in a rotation. If Hooker can recover well from his injury, he could be a dynamic deep safety for the Falcons with a very low price tag in 2021. At worst, he’d be experienced veteran depth for a roster that has...basically none of it.

Some other depth names to keep an eye on would be Falcons free agent Sharrod Neasman, who has been solid at worst when called upon, and Saints free agent strong safety D.J. Swearinger. Both could be valuable contributors who won’t break the bank for Atlanta.

I hope you enjoyed the sixth episode in our 2021 Falcons Free Agency series! Please leave your comments below and let me know what other types of breakdowns you’d like to see. If you haven’t already, be sure to Like the video and Subscribe to our YouTube channel!