The release of Ricardo Allen did more than remove a beloved locker room leader for Atlanta and open up a significant chunk of cap space. The move also ensured that as of today, the Falcons are utterly barren at the safety position, with 2020 fourth rounder Jaylinn Hawkins the last remaining safety on the entire roster. UPDATE: I forgot T.J. Green, signed to a reserve/future contract. Green has experience and should be viewed as a decent bet to make the roster, my apologies.
Unlike with the left guard position, where the Falcons have a host of avenues to take but also have an established starter to fall back on if that’s their preference, Atlanta essentially has no choice but to rebuild safety in a single offseason. That means spending money, draft picks, or both, and their choices are essentially between papering over the position for 2021, trying to solve it for the next 4-5 years in one go, or mixing those two approaches. In basically any scenario you can imagine, Hawkins figures in as a backup unless this coaching staff really falls in love with him, and we just haven’t seen enough of him to think that’s going to happen.
Given their cap restrictions and Terry Fontenot’s stated desire to solve needs with veterans, here are the potential paths in front of Atlanta.
Run it back, sort of
The Falcons may be able to take advantage of limited cap space leaguewide and bring back Keanu Neal on a semi team-friendly deal if that’s the desire. Doing so, re-signing Damontae Kazee on a one year deal as he works to prove he’s back after his devastating 2020 injury, and getting Sharrod Neasman back as a core special teamer and insurance policy for Kazee would get most of the gang back together, potentially without breaking the bank. Hawkins is your backup for Neal, and you have a safety group that is not going to knock your socks off but does have some upside given that Neal is very good and Kazee remains a player with potential he hasn’t fully shown to this point.
The chief obstacles to this scenario are fit—I personally think Dean Pees and company would find Neal to be an attractive piece, but I don’t know for sure—and the fact that Atlanta’s new brass has no attachments to these players. The fact that Kazee’s fortunes are unclear coming off of injury further complicates that picture, and Atlanta looking at last year’s safety group and thinking “yeah, let’s do that again minus Ricardo Allen” is unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely.
Short term free agent solves
This is much, much likelier. The Falcons will be looking at a safety market loaded with potential stopgaps, from 12 game Raiders starter Erik Harris to former top Colts pick Malik Hooker, who will be eyeing a deal that lets him prove he can stay healthy and be effective this offseason. There are 11 safeties on the open market who played at least 900 snaps a year ago, and aside from guys like John Johnson who are ready to break the bank and guys like Justin Simmons who will continue to, most of them shouldn’t require massive long-term commitments.
The Falcons could semi-affordably sign a couple of short-term deals with players like Tashaun Gipson, a 16 game free safety starter for the Bears last season, alongside Rayshawn Jenkins, a 15 game starter at strong safety for the Chargers in 2020, and mix in a backup with special teams value like Miles Killebrew, who played for new special teams coordinator Marquice Williams in Detroit. All of those players can be signed without breaking the bank long-term, a major concern of this current regime, and would set the Falcons up to slowly transition the safety position to younger players like they did from 2008-2009 under the previous regime. Gipson and Jenkins are good enough to make it work, especially if the Falcons address the rest of the defense with upgrades throughout the course of the offseason.
If your reaction to this is “how could the Falcons possibly afford that,” you may have missed the way Fontenot has discussed this team not prioritizing needs in the draft. At minimum, I expect one short-term starter and a special teams minded reserve like Killebrew, Neasman, or Houston’s Michael Thomas to join up, and the only question is how far into the $5 DVD bin at Walmart Atlanta will have to go.
Long term free agent solves
This one would likely involve a player Fontenot is extremely familiar with in Marcus Williams, and would require the Falcons to pony up major money on a long-term deal. That’s a harder thing to justify given the team’s cap crunch now and desire to be flexible going forward, but nor is it far-fetched.
Williams is very good, for starters, and is currently just 25 years old. Fontenot is also extremely familiar with his value, having been in the front office in New Orleans when he was drafted, and his coverage ability would have tremendous value for this defense.
If you look at the Tennessee defense in 2018, they added free agents at every level to help Dean Pees thrive, and one of the most noteworthy signings was former Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who started 29 of 32 games in the two years Pees ran that defense. Atlanta would likely love to add a difference-making safety to a barren position, whether it’s Williams, Minnesota’s Anthony Harris, or San Francisco’s Jaquiski Tartt, and undoubtedly will at least sniff around doing so if and when they free up enough cap space. The other needs that urgently need solving with starting-caliber players are running back, left guard, and defensive end, so it is a question of how high safety ranks on that list.
Because safety is a need and this team seems adamant about not putting themselves in the position of having to stretch for needs, I don’t think you’ll see the Falcons draft two starting safeties and essentially start over for the long haul that way. I can see them doing so at one position, particularly if the board lines up in such a way that a safety they love is one of the very best players available, but don’t expect two rookies to be back there Week 1.
That said, I’d be stunned if they didn’t draft someone. We have no idea if they’re even married to Hawkins as a backup option, and the need to essentially rebuild the position entirely means a draft class that does not lack for interesting Day 2 options is very much in play. If the Falcons elect to pick up Trevon Moehrig from TCU or Hamsah Nasirildeen from Florida State in the second round, nobody should be surprised. If Atlanta’s very aggressive in free agency Richie LeCounte from Georgia could be in play later to sit and grow into a larger role for 2022 and beyond. Either way, the team’s going to add at least one safety they like in late April, barring a 4-5 player free agency blitz or additions and the next scenario.
Move Isaiah Oliver
Last season, the Falcons suggested that Oliver could move to safety at some point, an option that has been bandied around ever since he was drafted without a lot of seriousness. The veteran corner is likely to be needed in his current position, but is a physical player who helps out effectively against the run and did some fine work closer to the line of scrimmage last year when he was given the chance. I’m adding it here just in case Pees catches the fever.
A mix of these options is the likeliest outcome
It’s not difficult at all for me to picture this team drafting a player they think can blossom into a long-term option at safety, picking up a safety like Gipson to serve as a short-term starter with upside, and bringing back Neasman given his versatility and value. It’s a virtual lock that Atlanta will not leave this position to the draft alone, and as much as I think Fontenot and company would like to add a safety as young and capable as Marcus Williams, they may simply be outbid by teams with deeper pockets. Until we see how aggressive they are about slashing contracts to make room, I’m not comfortable predicting any swings for the fences here.
The smart money is on this team electing to sign a couple of short-term starters to flexible deals that allow them to move on in a year or two if a rookie and/or Hawkins blossoms, and adding (or, in the case of Neasman, re-adding) a capable special teamer. When you essentially are starting over at a position group, there’s really no other way to go, and the team’s stated desire to fill needs in free agency means they’ll find the dollars and the players somehow.