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Falcons training camp battles: Safety

Is Atlanta set to usher in a youth movement at safety?

NFL: JAN 09 Saints at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re not that far away from training camp, which means it’s an excellent time to look at the state of some of the biggest position battles on the roster. We’re moving along to a position group with two starting jobs up for grabs: Safety

Your Atlanta Falcons have had quite a bit of stability at safety over the past decade, drafting two duos who held down starting jobs for multiple seasons. There’s an opportunity for this team to once again trot out a young, interesting safety pairing comprising players they’ve added via the draft, potentially allowing them to settle the starters for a while the way they did with Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal in 2016 and Thomas DeCoud and William Moore in 2010.

That’s the expected outcome, making this one of the less tension-charged position battles in camp, but it’s not a lock. The Falcons have four players who have a credible shot at earning a starting job to begin the season, and we’ll take a closer look at those four in today’s writeup.

The recent history at safety

Between DeCoud and Moore (2010-2013) and then Allen and Neal (2016-2020), the Falcons were pretty well set at safety for a while. You had your Erik Colemans filling the gaps and your Damontae Kazees and Kemal Ishmaels filling in when called upon, but generally you knew who was going to be starting for the Falcons for most of the past decade. That changed in 2021, with the team dynamiting the position group a bit and starting over.

Last year, Atlanta put Erik Harris and Duron Harmon out as bridge starters, with both delivering solid if unspectacular years. They had to do so in large part because they cut Ricardo Allen and let Keanu Neal walk in free agency, taking away the team’s two listed starters from 2016-2020.

Injury had become a major factor for both players, but going from two longtime reliable starters to starting over is a tough thing for any team to navigate. The Falcons wound up mixing in Jaylinn Hawkins, a second year pro with physicality and a nose for the ball, and a little bit of Richie Grant, who received far less playing time in 2021 than anticipated. It was clear that the Falcons were not going to run it back with Harris and Harmon as a duo unless they both excelled, and that’s not quite what happened, as both were solid but largely unspectacular.

Strikingly given the fact that safety was not a team strength in 2021, the Falcons didn’t make any major changes to the position this year, adding a couple of veterans in Dean Marlowe and Teez Tabor and re-upping with Harris. That brings us to the current moment, which will see four players vying for a starting job. Atlanta’s champing at the bit for defensive improvement, which should clue you into who they’re hoping will win these jobs.

The contenders

So who’s currently vying for the jobs? There are four players who could push for a starting role this summer, though I’d view two as favorites.

Jaylinn Hawkins

NFL: DEC 19 Falcons at 49ers Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2020 Falcons draft class was a bright spot in a dismal year for Atlanta, and Hawkins appears poised to be a significant part of that after A.J. Terrell ascended to stardom last year and Matt Hennessy seized a starting job. Hawkins showed glimpses of tantalizing promise a year ago in limited opportunities, and this year he seems poised to take a starting job.

The strengths here are evident. As Eric Robinson wrote when he was drafted, Hawkins is physical and aggressive in a way that lends itself to big plays, and instinctual and smart enough to take advantage of the opportunities that come to him. Hawkins started games at both strong safety and free safety in college and gained a reputation as something of an interception machine, something he showed glimpses of in 2021. He showed that ability to make plays on the ball on multiple occasions last season.

Hawkins got on the field pretty reliably last year, clocking just under 50% of the defensive snaps and playing a major role on special teams, but his playing time waxed and waned as the season rolled on. Part of that was due to the kinds of errors you expect to see from a young, relatively inexperienced player, as Hawkins did whiff on a few tackle opportunities and suffer from a small handful of coverage errors. Considering both Harmon and Harris struggled with the same issues at times, and given that Hawkins is not even 25 years old just yet, I think it’s fair to expect that we’ll see fewer of those miscues as time goes on. The Falcons obviously think so, because they really didn’t go out of their way to add direct competition for Hawkins at safety.

The upshot with Hawkins is that he showed enough competence in his opportunities last year to think he’ll be a solid starter, and he’s clearly talented enough to be a good one with effort and seasoning. I’m penciling him in as a starter, and fully expecting him to deliver a quality season if he gets the job.

Richie Grant

NFL: DEC 26 Lions at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While Jalen Mayfield was the butt of more than a few jokes and a metric ton of angst due to his rookie struggles, Richie Grant may actually have earned more ire from the fanbase. A player many of us were excited about, the ballhawk from UCF wound up playing far less on defense than anticipated. That inability to consistently get on the field—Grant wound up logging real time at safety and nickel for stretches but seeing that playing time dwindle late in the year—was frustrating given that we all had him penciled in as a starter after he was drafted.

While that’s disappointing for a rookie second rounder that fans had high hopes for, Grant feels like a player worth investing that hope into for 2022. All the strengths Eric Robinson wrote about are still there, and we saw flashes of them when Grant did get onto the field. After a year spent learning the defense and becoming a major contributor on special teams, Grant has a clear path to a starting job, and just needs to show the coaching staff he has a strong grasp on the defense and that some of his 2021 miscues in terms of iffy angles and missed tackles are being ironed out.

At his best, Grant offers you an extremely well-rounded game, with an ability to make plays on the ball, a willingness and ability to help out against the run, and rock solid coverage skills. He was able to show some of that ability in the nickel role he stepped into last year, but the Falcons drafted him to be one of their starting safeties and will be counting on him delivering on his considerable promise this season. So long as Grant shows he’s better prepared than he was a year ago, the expectation should be that he’ll take over as the Falcons’ free safety and be counted upon to provide the kind of big plays the team largely lacked with Harris and Harmon a year ago.

It’s not now or never for Grant, but after 2021 the pressure is on to win a starting job and excel. The former feels like a virtual lock, and the latter is something I still believe will come to pass sooner than later.

Erik Harris

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Harris is the man most likely to throw a wrench in the youth movement. The veteran came over from the Raiders last year and took a starting job without much difficulty, and he wound up making 12 starts before an injury wiped out the end of his season. Dean Pees clearly trusted him to get the job done, and aside from a few (admittedly extremely) frustrating dropped interceptions and missed tackles, Harris was solid.

If either Grant or Hawkins struggles this summer, you won’t see the team hesitate to trot Harris out Week 1 so long as he’s fully healthy. As Kevin Knight wrote last April when he was signed, Harris has played multiple roles on multiple NFL defenses and is an experienced starter with 38 starts over the past three seasons, and his all-around competence means Pees will feel comfortable plugging him in when needed.

If things settle out the way I expect them to, Harris will be the third safety and the kind of core special teamer he was earlier in his career. Given that the Falcons are banking on a pair of young safeties taking major steps forward, something that I believe will happen but is not a guarantee, Harris will still be in the picture for a starting job and may make spot starts if injury strikes.

Dean Marlowe

Philadelphia Eagles vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I’m adding Marlowe not because he seems particularly likely to take a starting job, but because he is certainly capable of doing so if other options falter and/or injury becomes a factor in this safety group.

Marlowe made several starts for the Lions last year, but mostly played the third safety role that I’d envision for Harris here in Atlanta. Pride of Detroit noted that Marlowe does not and did not excel at any one thing in his opportunities in Detroit, as he was a solid enough tackler who was unremarkable in coverage. What Marlowe does offer is a proven track record of contributing on special teams—Marquice Williams got a few useful players this offseason—and a competent-enough skillset with the starting experience to think he can hold down a job for a week or two in an emergency.

Like Harris, Marlowe will likely settle in as a reserve and special teamer if all goes well for Grant and Hawkins, and will function as the team’s fourth safety if he makes the roster. It’s not really a knock on Marlowe to say if he’s starting heading into the year, something has gone awry with the team’s plans, because Harris’s familiarity with this defense and better play in 2021 should give him a leg up on Marlowe in general.

Who wins the battle?

It would be an upset if it was not Hawkins and Grant.

The Falcons have an opportunity to trot out a young starting safety duo with real talent, and both spent a year immersing themselves in Dean Pees’ defense and earning that all-important trust from the defensive coordinator. If this defense is going to take a major step forward, something that this franchise is clearly banking on, it would help to level up safety play to something north of competent.

Grant and Hawkins both offer playmaking ability the Falcons have been sorely lacking at safety the last couple of seasons, and Grant in particular has the upside to be an above average starter. If everything breaks right—and of course that’s not a given—the Falcons could noticeably upgrade safety without having spent any resources of note on the position this offseason. At worst, they’ll have one young starter and Harris, a familiar face who can provide competent starting-level play as long as the team needs.

Barring injury, I think you can bank on the team investing in the future and rolling both players out as starters. We’ll hope the duo can live up to their considerable promise and give the Falcons’ a new long-term set of starters at a position group critical to making this Atlanta defense function as it should.