The Falcons leaned heavily on a pair of veteran, stopgap starters at safety in 2021. Duron Harmon and Erik Harris were solid enough for Dean Pees, but it’s obvious the Falcons can and should be aiming to get more out of their safety group in 2022.
That starts with two players they already have under contract. Richie Grant didn’t get a ton of run this year on defense, but has to be a building block at safety or nickel going forward if this defense is going to get better in the short term. Jaylinn Hawkins whiffed on some tackles and seemed to fall out of favor with the coaching staff late in the year, but had some nice moments earlier on and clearly has ability. At least one of these guys needs to be starting at safety in 2022.
For the other spot and for depth, the Falcons need to look hard at the draft and free agency. Ideally, if the Falcons re-signed Isaiah Oliver and slot him at the nickel, Grant will start and Hawkins will at least be a high-end backup. The team can, if they’re not planning to draft someone like Kyle Hamilton in the first round, turn to the market and look for either a high-end starter, a capable player who can at least compete with Grant/Hawkins, or just quality depth.
Let’s look at the safety market and see what the options are for each of those three routes. This is by no means an exhaustive, so if I missed your favorite, be sure to sing their praises in the comments.
- Tyrann Mathieu, 30
- Marcus Maye, 28
- Marcus Williams, 26
- Terrell Edmunds, 25
- Xavier Woods, 26
- Jessie Bates, 25
- Jaquiski Tartt, 29
Mathieu has played both safety spots in his career, remains a tremendous athlete, and is still a capable playmaker. Maye is coming off a bit of a down year by his standards that featured a major Achilles injury, but I view that as more likely to be a blip than a sign that he’s on the downslope of his career. He just needs to be healthy. Williams, despite being a Saint, is terrific and would offer a massive boost to this team’s coverage ability at safety.
Edmunds is the least established player here, as he’s often criticized for his adventures in coverage. He’s also fast, talented, and still just 25 years old, so I’m not at all opposed on betting on his future. Woods is just a little bit older and is coming off the finest year of his career with Minnesota, delivering a really intriguing and well-rounded campaign. Bates flashed some of his potential in the playoff game against the Raiders, and if he’s been inconsistent at this point, he’s young enough and good enough to turn himself into a high-end starter sooner than later.
Finally, there’s Tartt. He’s not the flashiest or most exciting name on this list, but he’s an excellent safety who is quietly great in coverage and an extremely sure tackler, which would help the Falcons shore up a pair of weaknesses.
You wouldn’t hear me complain about a single name on this list if the Falcons decide to make a splash.
Stopgap starters/quality reserves
- Erik Harris, 32
- Duron Harmon, 31
- Devin McCourty, 35
- Juston Burris, 29
- Quandre Diggs, 29
- Ricardo Allen, 31, Cincinnati
- Malik Hooker, 26
- DeShon Elliott, 25
- Kareem Jackson, 34
- Keanu Neal, 26
Harmon and Harris are both options, obviously, because they’re affordable, they’re familiar with Pees and this defense after playing in it last year, and they were reliable. The upside here is pretty non-existent—you know what you’re getting with both players, and it’s a fair number of dropped interceptions—but for another year of backing up the starters or starting in a pinch they’re legitimate options.
Elliott is an interesting option, to me. He misses too many tackles but has played reasonably well over the past two seasons in Baltimore and is still very young, making him a potential upside signing for a team that needs to hunt for young talent however they can get it.
We obviously know Allen well and the team released him last offseason, so a reunion seems unlikely. He’s still a quality player, but he’s more for posterity than an assumption that he’ll be signed. Neal is someone I also love, but also one coming off a season where he was largely a reserve and largely played linebacker, which is a concern because he was with Dan Quinn in Dallas. He probably won’t be back, either, but he is interesting as a linebacker.
- Miles Killebrew, 28
- Tracy Walker, 27
- Andrews Adams, 29
- Chris Banjo, 32
- Dean Marlowe, 30
- Will Parks, 28
- Troy Apke, 27
- Dane Cruikshank, 27
- Sheldrick Redwine, 26
Killebrew is strictly a deep reserve on defense, but he’s been a core special teamer for the Steelers and Lions throughout his career. The Falcons went out and added Daren Bates mid-season at linebacker basically solely for his special teams value, and with Grant and Hawkins likely stepping into larger roles on defense, Marquice Williams (who overlapped with Killebrew in Detroit) might pound the table for him. Tracy Walker may also be an option for similar reasons, but he’s also got the requisite physicality to be an interesting reserve safety in this defense, as well.
Apke is a similar story, but has ties to Kyle Smith, who would’ve been involved in his selection in the fourth round for Washington a few years back. He’d fill a core special teams role if signed, and it feels to me like a virtual lock that the Falcons bring in players Williams can rely on this offseason.
Cruikshank is also a special teamer at heart, but he started four games a year ago, is a capable tackler at the very least, and overlapped with Dean Pees and Arthur Smith in Tennessee.
My expectation is that the Falcons will try to sign a guy from the second list to start and a guy from the third list to provide depth, with a draft pick also potentially entering the mix. I don’t think Grant and Hawkins are going to be handed jobs, and Grant may or may not even play safety full-time, depending on whether Oliver is re-signed and/or the Falcons end up liking someone like Darren Hall in that role.
Who would you prefer to sign from these lists?