The player most likely to fill DeCoud’s shoes is Dwight Lowery. Lowery went under the radar this offseason because the Jacksonville Jaguars cut him early during the 2013 season. Lowery suffered a concussion three weeks into the season, and the Jaguars in rebuilding mode opted to cut him outright. Lowery was not scooped up until the Falcons nabbed him in early April in one of the later waves of free-agent signings. That leaves many skeptics as to whether Lowery is capable of stepping in at free safety. Lowery’s obscurity in Jacksonville coupled with the long absence from the field fuels that skepticism.
DeCoud’s poor play led to his release in February and the expectations are that his replacement will not just fill his shoes, but be an upgrade as well. Lowery has the potential to be that since he’s a more consistent tackler than DeCoud and also his past as a nickel corner with the New York Jets to start his career means he should translate better in man coverage. If that is the case, then it should pay dividends for the rest of the Falcons secondary.
Particularly in regards to strong safety William Moore, who is in no way fearful of his job being lost. While Moore is not coming off one of his best seasons, it feels more like it was one aberrant weak season among several good ones rather than the beginning of a new downward trend. With stronger play out of the free safety, Moore can play a little more fast and loose, which is more to his style of flying around, hitting opponents and picking off any tipped passes over the middle.
However, if there is an even bigger concern than the questions surrounding Lowery, it’s the team’s depth at the position. That depth may be important given Lowery and Moore’s injury history. Lowery hasn’t completed a full 16-game season since his rookie year in 2008, missing 28 games over the past five seasons. Moore’s past isn’t much better since 2013 was only the second time he made it through an entire season healthy. He’s missed 18 games due to injury over the past five years.
Third-round pick Dezmen Southward could be a big piece in solving the depth puzzle. Southward is a good developmental talent at free safety, but is raw. Having only played one year of high school football, Southward is an excellent athlete that just doesn’t have a ton of experience at the position. Covering wide receivers in the slot and making calls in the secondary, things that he will have to do one day if he is to start at free safety are relatively new to him. He only got the opportunity to play over the slot his final year at Wisconsin and struggled against quality opponents. And the best receivers he faced last season in college pale in comparison to some of the potential slot receivers he’ll see in the pros this fall, such as Victor Cruz, Greg Jennings and Marques Colston.
Southward’s inexperience coupled with the durability concerns of starters Lowery and Moore don’t appear to be a good mix. The Falcons had a similar situation last summer where rookies Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael competed with Schann Schillinger and Charles Mitchell for the rights to back up Moore and DeCoud. Mitchell didn’t make it through camp and Schillinger was cut midway through the season. Motta was forced into the lineup for two games when DeCoud went down with an injury and struggled. He finished his rookie season with a broken neck, and his NFL future is now in question. Which only leaves Ishmael as the team’s most experienced option and he only appeared in four games last season exclusively on special teams.
It doesn’t appear that it’s a gamble the Falcons should risk again, especially since Motta may be out of commission for good. Signing a veteran safety would be a good insurance policy. It’s something that could occur further along in camp, but the team is likely hoping that Southward will step up and fill the void before they do. The team did this once before in 2011, when they signed James Sanders only after Schillinger and Rafael Bush failed to step up in camp.
Motta’s potential absence should certainly help Ishmael’s bid to make the team again. While Ishmael’s upside on defense may be limited, he does possess a lot of the traits teams look for in a special teams maven. His lack of size and speed hurt him as a safety, but not so much on coverage units. He’s a good tackler that is willing to stick his neck out, ideal for the high-collision arena of special teams.
Also pushing for time will be Sean Baker and undrafted rookie Kimario McFadden. Baker ended last season on the team’s roster after spending time on the practice squad. He will need to showcase any special teams talent he might have in order to stick in Atlanta. The same goes for McFadden, another player that likes to fly around and hit guys. That could translate to sticking on special teams, but more than likely both Baker and McFadden will have to settle for practice squad spots.
Much of the safety position this season will depend on how well Lowery and Southward play. We will get our first indications of that this summer, but it’s also possible that the Falcons aren’t quite done addressing their safety position before the start of the regular season.