Safety is a position for the Atlanta Falcons that has undergone some changes to the starting lineup, but there is a lot of hope that there is a bright future for the position looming on the horizon.
First-round pick Keanu Neal is the main addition to the unit, replacing long-time veteran strong safety William Moore. Neal is expected to fill Moore’s mantle as the team’s enforcer in run support, bringing a hard-hitting and physical style that had been missing often from the Falcons defense the past few years thanks to Moore’s frequent absences due to injuries. The Falcons hope that Neal will be a lot more durable in the years to come. Much of this summer will focus on him getting up to speed in the defense but an untimely injury is about the only thing that will prevent him from starting Week One of the regular season.
Ricardo Allen’s summer will be spent fending off Robenson Therezie from the starting free safety job, where head coach Dan Quinn has indicated that he’s expected to compete. But it would be a major upset if Allen doesn’t win the job. While Allen had his fair share of struggles last year, particularly with a few notable missed tackles on a couple of big runs, the team is hoping that with added bulk and another year working at safety, he’ll be poised to improve upon what was a solid, but unspectacular first year as a starter.
Allen made the conversion from college cornerback to safety thanks to his shorter stature and steady poise in zone coverage. After spending almost his entire rookie season in 2014 on the practice squad, Allen proved a quick study in the position flip. The Falcons are hoping that he’s just as capable when it comes to improving upon last year’s gains.
Therezie could push Allen and had a few opportunities to play last year when Allen was sidelined with injuries. Therezie proved an effective option at times, especially considering he was an undrafted rookie that played more of a hybrid safety-linebacker role at Auburn more akin to strong safety in the Quinn’s defensive scheme in Atlanta. But Therezie has the athleticism, speed and range to make an effective coverage player at free safety, just needs to work on improving his instincts and awareness.
The real gap between him and Allen is that the latter is able to anticipate throws more readily and put himself into better positions to make more plays in coverage. Without significant gains there, Therezie won’t be much of a challenger for the starting spot this summer. But even if he doesn’t overtake Allen as a starter, the Falcons are likely counting Therezie among their major contributors on special teams this season.
The same can be said of Kemal Ishmael, who is most likely to be Neal’s backup at strong safety. Ishmael bulked up last year and has always been a reliable run-defender. His biggest weaknesses have always been his struggles in coverage due to questionable speed and awareness. It limits his effectiveness as a starter for extended periods, but he has shown he is capable of filling in for an injured starter for shorter periods of time.
Ishmael will be forced to fend off veteran Charles Godfrey, the elder statesmen of the position group now that Moore is gone. Godfrey is a ninth-year veteran that spent much of 2015 off and on the Falcons roster. A versatile reserve given his ability to play either safety spot, slot cornerback or help out on special teams, Godfrey provides solid depth. But like Therezie and Ishmael, Godfrey also appeared limited at times when getting reps on regular defense last season.
The big question in regards to whether the Falcons keep him centers on the level of trust in the growth and development of both backup safeties. If the team has little concerns about Therezie and Ishmael, they could easily part ways with Godfrey at the end of the summer. Yet even so, there stands a good chance that if need be the Falcons could always re-sign Godfrey as they did frequently throughout last year.
Also pushing for opportunities this summer will be Damian Parms along with a pair of undrafted rookies in Sharrod Neasman and Brian Poole. Parms was an undrafted rookie with the Falcons last August but was cut by the team before he got a chance to compete in a preseason game. Clearly despite that early release, he impressed the team enough to be brought back for a second summer. Parms has the size and physicality to impact in run support at strong safety, but will have to prove he’s effective enough in coverage and on special teams to get a longer look. More than likely he’ll be competing for a chance to make the practice squad rather than the active roster.
The same might be said of Neasman and Poole, although they are arguably two of the higher profile college free agents the Falcons added this year. Should either show enough ability this summer, they could stick as the team’s fifth safety instead of an older player like Godfrey.
Neasman will likely play strong safety and has the athleticism to envision him filling a similar role as Godfrey as a versatile reserve that can be a “jack of all trades” kind of reserve.
Poole was a college corner at Florida that will likely get looks at free safety this summer in a similar vein as Allen a year ago. Poole might also be in the mix for the team’s highly competitive nickel cornerback role this year, but probably stands a better chance of lasting in the NFL and Atlanta at safety. His compact build and physical playing style should make him a good developmental option if he can showcase those abilities this summer.
Despite the youth, there is a bit more confidence that several of the young players are capable of stepping up in the event that either starter in Neal or Allen goes down. Both Ishmael and Therezie proved capable enough reserves that the presence of a veteran like Godfrey might be superfluous.
There is optimism that with the development of Neal and growth of Allen this summer, that safety could be a position in the near future that is considered one of the biggest strengths of the Falcons defense.