Based on what we’ve seen so far, the Atlanta Falcons are invested in making their secondary the face of the defense. That’s clearly a different strategy than the one employed by Dan Quinn, who emphasized the front-7 but failed to add the necessary talent to make it work. Atlanta’s cornerback room is top-heavy but features a quality starting trio that could be among the best in the division. But what about safety?
That’s the topic of today’s post-draft roster review, as we take a closer look at the depth chart. Last year’s group underwhelmed outside of veteran Erik Harris and former fourth-rounder Jaylinn Hawkins. Rookie Richie Grant barely saw the field on defense, and veteran Duron Harmon had arguably his worst season as a pro. While some players have come and gone this offseason, the depth chart remains largely the same at the top.
Let’s take a closer look at the players competing at safety.
The young guns: Richie Grant, Jaylinn Hawkins
2021 Stats: 16 games played | 35 total tackles, 28 solo, 2.0 TFL, 1 FF, 12.5% missed tackle rate | 2 PD, 69.2% completion rate allowed, 103.4 passer rating allowed | 58.6 overall PFF grade | 7.80 RAS
It’s no stretch to say that Richie Grant’s rookie season was a disappointment. The second-round pick was selected after a trade-down, as the Falcons passed on Jevon Holland (at the original pick) and Trevon Moehrig—who both started 13+ games in 2021. It’s way too soon to draw any conclusions, and worth noting that Grant was asked to play out of position at slot corner after the injury to Isaiah Oliver. But fans certainly hoped for more than 275 defensive snaps from the highly-drafted DB.
The good news is that Grant appears to be slated for a major role in 2022, with Dean Pees talking up the second-year player as someone who will get a big opportunity. Grant figures to be a favorite to start at one of the safety spots, and his versatility to play the slot should be a boon going forward. I still really like Grant as a prospect, and think there’s a clear path to him reaching his potential in his second year in the scheme.
2021 Stats: 14 games played, 2 games started | 24 total tackles, 13 solo, 1.0 TFL, 17.2% missed tackle rate | 3 PD, 2 INT, 57.9% completion rate allowed, 87.5 passer rating allowed | 58.8 overall PFF grade | N/A RAS
A holdover from the Dan Quinn era, Jaylinn Hawkins stuck around with the new regime and made his way onto the field frequently in 2021. The former fourth-round pick found himself a frequent contributor in three-safety sets and started four games last season, playing approximately 49% of the defensive snaps. Hawkins was impressive in limited action, notching two INTs and putting up impressive numbers in coverage. The weaknesses came as a tackler, as Hawkins must improve his 17.2% missed tackle rate to stick as a starter.
Interestingly, Hawkins might actually be a better fit for Dean Pees’ defense than Dan Quinn’s. His ability to line up in any safety role was his calling card in college, as he played everything from box safety to single-high. He’s probably best in split-safety looks and Cover 2, but Hawkins’ versatility should make him a long-term third safety at worst. If he can improve his tackling and physicality, Hawkins could wind up seizing a starting job in 2022.
The veterans: Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe
2021 Stats: 12 games started, 12 games played | 64 total tackles, 46 solo, 3.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 14.7% missed tackle rate | 8 PD, 68.3% completion rate allowed, 98.5 passer rating allowed | 59.7 overall PFF grade | 4.59 RAS
One of two veteran safeties signed to man the starting roles in 2021, Erik Harris was by far the best safety on Atlanta’s roster last season. That’s not necessarily saying much, but Harris filled in admirably and made an impact both in the box and in coverage. He was arguably Atlanta’s most physical player in the secondary and provided stability to a position that lacked it, with Duron Harmon struggling and Richie Grant failing to get on to the field. Fans will obviously remember all the dropped INTs—which were incredibly frustrating—but at least he was in position to make those plays.
Harris suffered a season-ending injury late in the season, but returned on another one-year deal. It’s likely that Harris will take on more of a depth role this year, playing as the third safety and as a core special teams contributor. If either Grant or Hawkins stumble, however, Harris could easily find his way back into the starting lineup once he returns to full health.
2021 Stats: 16 games played, 9 games started | 67 total tackles, 37 solo, 6.9% missed tackle rate | 2 PD, 80% completion rate allowed, 118.1 passer rating allowed | 61.0 overall PFF grade | 4.85 RAS
The Falcons have made a point of bringing in experienced veterans at safety under the new regime, and Dean Marlowe is the latest addition. A former UDFA of the Panthers all the way back in 2015, Marlowe made the roster as a rookie and spent three seasons in Carolina. He followed that up with three more in Buffalo, playing primarily as a reserve before getting an opportunity to start in 2020. In 2021, Marlowe joined the Lions and wound up starting 9 games—grading out as an average starter.
Marlowe doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers in coverage, but he’s solid. He was exceptional as a tackler in 2021 with an impressive 6.9% missed tackle rate, and has shown some ability as a blitzer. Marlowe makes a ton of sense as a versatile, experienced reserve piece for Atlanta’s young safety room. He’s a heavy favorite for the roster due to his value on defense and special teams.
Depth and practice squad competition: Brad Hawkins, Tre Webb
2021 Stats (College): 60 total tackles, 41 solo, 3.0 TFL, 2 FF, 4 PD | 7.68 RAS
The first (and only, at least initially) of the Falcons’ UDFA signings at safety, Michigan’s Brad Hawkins certainly has the build and athleticism of an NFL player. Hawkins appeared in a school-record 56 games, showcasing his consistency and durability. He was a core player on special teams throughout his tenure, and also played a versatile role on defense alongside Daxton Hill—who was a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. If Atlanta keeps five safeties, Hawkins could compete for the final spot with fellow UDFA Tre Webb.
2021 Stats (College): 70 total tackles, 39 solo, 2.5 TFL, 2 PD, 1 INT | 8.00 RAS
A rookie minicamp tryout who impressed the team enough to earn a full UDFA contract, Montana State’s Tre Webb is a teammate of second-round LB Troy Andersen. Webb has an interesting story as a former high school QB who transitioned to safety at San Jose State, where he spent five seasons. He then transferred to Montana State as a graduate, immediately earning a starting job. Webb is an intriguing athlete with solid size who should compete with Brad Hawkins for a roster and/or practice squad spot.
While this safety group isn’t scaring any offenses without major improvements from Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins, it is deep and well-rounded. Grant offers significant upside as a second-year player and will hopefully take the next step as a starter in 2022. Hawkins simply needs to clean up his tackling—he already showed off his skills in coverage—to take over the other starting job. That would give Atlanta two young safeties with upside.
Behind them, the Falcons have two experienced veteran starters in Erik Harris—who manned the position admirably last season—and Dean Marlowe. Both would be solid spot-starters if needed, and both are impact special teams players. All-in-all, this is one of the most settled spots on the roster.