One of the Atlanta Falcons’ top priorities in the 2015 NFL Draft may be bolstering the free safety position given the importance that position holds in the defensive scheme of new head coach Dan Quinn.
Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas epitomizes that importance. Thomas is widely regarded as the league’s best safety due to his superior instincts, range and play-making ability. Thomas’ ability to patrol the back end of the Seahawks defense is arguably the key reason why their vaunted secondary, the “Legion of Boom,” has been widely considered the league’s best for the past few years.
If Quinn intends to repeat that success in Atlanta, it’ll likely require a similar player to patrol the deep middle. But finding such a player comparable to Thomas will be hard, especially in 2015.
Thomas was a rare safety prospect when he came out of Texas in 2010, evidenced by his being selected with the 14th overall selection that year. Only one safety (Mark Barron) has been selected with a higher pick since. Thomas made an instant impact in the NFL, leading the Seahawks with five interceptions as a rookie.
There is no such Thomas-like prospect in the 2015 class. In fact, this year’s group is considered weak by most standards. That may force the Falcons to settle for a lesser player and it raises the question of whether Quinn’s scheme can be as effective without a player as good as Thomas patrolling the secondary.
The team will be expected to target players that sport traits comparable to Thomas, but obviously not to his same level. They will prefer players with speed and range to cover the back end and prevent the deep play, but also possesses the instincts and ball skills to be able to make plays underneath and on the intermediate level.
Tackling won’t be as important, as Quinn has made a point to teach the finer points of it thus far in the offseason. If a prospect is already strong in run support, it will only improve his stock. But it won’t hurt him in the eyes of Falcons evaluators as much as it potential would for other NFL teams.
Finding such a proven coverage player may be difficult in 2015, but the Falcons are best served at least making the attempt because the options currently on their roster don’t seem any more promising.
Charles Godfrey is currently penciled in atop the team’s depth chart at free safety. The seven-year veteran brings experience with 75 career starts, and should benefit from playing in a different scheme than he did in Carolina, where he was often asked to cover slot receivers. Instead, Godfrey won’t draw as many man-coverage assignments in Atlanta, which should make him far less problematic in coverage than he’s been throughout his career.
Behind him is Dezmen Southward, who might be making the move to cornerback. That move is facilitated by the fact that he may not be the best fit at free safety. While Southward possesses the speed and range that the scheme covets, he may lack the instincts which makes that superior athleticism functionally useless.
The Falcons don’t really have any other options. William Moore does possess better-than-average range and the ability to play centerfield, but he would be better suited playing the strong safety spot where he be used more in the box in run support, a role where he shines. He’s a near-perfect fit for the same role that Kam Chancellor fills in Seattle beside Thomas. But Chancellor is allowed to shine in that role because of Thomas’ ability to handle the deep coverage assignments. Thus it’ll be important for the Falcons to find that same complement to Moore.
Behind Moore is Kemal Ishmael, who struggled mightily in 2014 defending the deep ball and lacks the speed and range to be effective there. Like Moore, Ishmael does his best work when he’s playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Given Moore’s advancing age and price tag, it’s possible that the Falcons might also look at some potential replacements at strong safety. But more than likely, Ishmael’s presence on the roster means the Falcons can afford to wait and see what they have in him in 2015.
It all leaves the Falcons’ potential options to start at free safety as relatively thin. Godfrey hasn’t been a full-time starter for anybody since 2012, and the team only re-signed him to a modest one-year deal, suggesting that he’s seen more as a place-holder than a legitimate problem-solver at the position.
Thus the Falcons may opt to make adding a free safety the next priority behind bolstering the pass rush when it comes to the draft. It’s arguably the more important position in the defensive scheme, but only will get sidelined due to the lack of premium safety prospects available early and the fact that the team has ignored the pass rush for far longer on draft day.
The perceived lack of talent in this year’s crop of safeties also means that the Falcons may be compelled to pull the trigger on one of the few good ones early in the draft. That makes safety the safest bet as the position the Falcons will use their second-round pick on when the time finally comes.