No other position on the Falcons roster has undergone as dramatic a change as safety. Atlanta entered the 2020 season discussing how it might deploy Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee in essentially a three-safety nickel package. Now, none of those players are on the roster, and the Falcons are resetting at the position under a new regime.
Understanding their need at the position, the Falcons added two veterans in Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, and they used their second-round pick on former UCF star Richie Grant. After a huge transition at safety, let's take a closer look at the position group heading into the summer.
2020 stats (college): 9 games, 72 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 5 pass defenses, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
Contract status: Expected to sign a four-year contract
Atlanta’s second-round pick in this year’s draft, Grant brings versatility and a playmaking mindset to the back end of the defense. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees is expected to use a wide variety of packages with the unit, and Grant is the type of player who could easily have a few different roles early on. He’s capable of playing centerfielder as a deep free safety, and Grant is also an option to roll down into the box to help defend against the run, given his skill set.
Pees has worked with some very good safeties throughout his NFL career – most notably Hall of Famer Ed Reed – and Grant fits the mold of the type of player he’s used effectively. It remains to be seen whether Grant steps into a starting role from the jump – or if the term “starter” even matters in what could be a rotation-heavy defense – but he seems set for a bright future in this league.
2020 stats: 16 games, 73 tackles, 0 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 5 pass defenses, 0 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 fumble recoveries
Contract status: Signed through 2021 season
A three-time Super Bowl champion, Harmon is a respected veteran and someone who should help implement Pees’s defensive mindset in Atlanta. Harmon spent seven seasons in New England before a one-year detour in Detroit last season, and it’s that Patriots background that makes him a good fit for the Falcons. Harmon has proven to be a high-floor player throughout his career and is still a reliable last line of defense as a free safety. His year with Detroit raised some questions about how successful he can be outside of New England, but Harmon should have plenty to offer in a rotation with the Falcons.
Harmon could very well be an anchor type of player for Atlanta at safety, someone who allows his teammates to operate in more versatile roles while he mans the deep role in coverage. In that sense, Harmon should pair very well with either Grant or Harris, who might be better suited to move around the field and give opposing offenses different looks.
2020 stats: 14 games, 61 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 0 interceptions, 5 pass defenses, 0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 0 fumble recoveries
Contract status: Signed through 2021 season
Of the additions at safety this offseason, Harris is likely the most underrated. He didn’t blow people away during his time with the Raiders, but Harris was a team captain and does a lot of the things he’ll likely be asked to do in Atlanta very well. He can play down in the box, line up in the slot or cover the deep part of the field. Pees has expressed his belief in utilizing schemes that take advantage of the players at his disposal, and the Falcons seem set up to utilize a lot of nickel looks. In 2018, Pees used nickel personnel 73 percent of the time with the Titans, and Harris is a reason why something similar could happen in Atlanta this fall.
Having Harris, Harmon and Grant on the field at the same time will allow Pees to disguise everything pre-snap without sacrificing much after the snap. All three safeties have the speed to drop into coverage even if lined up close to the line of scrimmage, and they should be threats to blitz at any given time. Harris’s versatility and ability to do all of those things well makes him a really interesting piece for this defense.
Dean Pees killed the Browns hype with creepers pic.twitter.com/PsoWwRAhgi— Steven Ruiz (The Panthers passed on Justin Fields) (@theStevenRuiz) May 6, 2020
2020 stats: 12 games, 13 tackles, 0 tackles for loss, 0 interceptions, 0 pass defenses, 0.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 fumble recoveries
Contract status: Signed through 2023 season
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Hawkins was primarily a special teams contributor during his first season in Atlanta. Hawkins is another versatile safety, and it will be interesting to see what type of role Pees envisions for him. The fact that the Falcons drafted another safety so highly may not bode well for Hawkins, but there is still some developmental potential with him, especially with Harmon and Harris only under contract for 2021 at the moment. Here is what I wrote about him during training camp last year:
“In the various individual drills, however, Hawkins has shown great functional athleticism and body control. He keeps his body over his feet during the backpedal and is quick to close downhill. At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, has the size to play down in the box while also displaying the instincts to play deep in coverage.”
Outlook: Better than before
This was easily the Falcons’ biggest positional need heading into free agency, and the team did a pretty good job of addressing it with minimal resources. While Grant may be the only player with the upside of someone like Keanu Neal or Damontae Kazee, the floor should be fairly high at this position. Additionally, Atlanta added three undrafted free agents – Dwayne Johnson Jr., Marcus Murphy and JR Pace – to flesh out the depth at the position. Veteran T.J. Green is still here and competing, as well.
Safety is a position that should be vital to how Pees deploys his defense, and this first offseason may be a clue for what the organization will look for at this spot in the future. With two veterans on one-year deals, this group is likely to undergo another significant change next offseason, but Atlanta will be in a better spot to set itself up for the future when that time comes.