When the Atlanta Falcons decided to cut long-time free safety Thomas DeCoud in March, it created a void at the position. But the thinking may have been that DeCoud’s play in 2013 had slipped so considerably that such a void would be relatively easy to fill.
And while the Falcons made quick moves to help address their weaknesses along the line of scrimmage at the outset of free agency, they stood quiet when it came to concerns in the secondary. But eventually the Falcons addressed their need at the position by signing Dwight Lowery, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Lowery was a forgotten man, having missed most of 2013 nursing a concussion. He was released by the Jaguars midseason after being placed on injured reserve due to that head injury, his second in six years in the NFL. But his inconspicuous exit from Jacksonville should not diminish what he had done for three years, where he was second only to linebacker Daryl Smith as the team’s most consistent defender. And one certainly saw what Smith did in Baltimore last year after leaving behind obscurity in Jacksonville.
Lowery began his career at cornerback, playing three seasons with the New York Jets playing mainly in the slot. That should give him an edge over DeCoud in terms of coverage on the back-end, an area that has been sorely lacking for the team in recent years. Man coverage is anything but a strength for strong safety William Moore (as Jimmy Graham can attest). Not to mention, Lowery should be a vast improvement over DeCoud in run support as he is much less prone to missing tackles. Over the past three years in Jacksonville, Lowery missed a combined 10 tackles (per premium website Pro Football Focus). In 2013 alone, DeCoud missed 12 and combined for 43 over the past three seasons.
But the last time the Falcons signed a free agent from Jacksonville that was coming off an injury, he did not even make it to training camp. Lowery is no stranger to injuries himself, having missed a combined 23 games in his three-year stint with the Jaguars. He also missed five combined games over his final two years with the Jets, and hasn’t played in all 16 games since his 2008 rookie season. And that recent memory of Manuwai probably raises some trepidation in the eyes of both the fanbase and front office that could be addressed in the draft.
Given that Lowery only signed a one-year deal with the Falcons, the team is hardly married to him beyond this season. Thus it would be smart to draft someone that not only can add depth in case the injury bug claims Lowery again, but also can be groomed as a potential replacement in 2015 if Lowery’s play is anything below par.
How apparent this need for depth is will also depend on how the Falcons feel about current backups Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael. Motta’s game and a half stint as the starting free safety a year ago did not end with glowing results. But the Falcons seemingly have a good deal of confidence in him. They could also be expecting bigger things from Ishmael, who redshirting most of his rookie season.
The team could also tinker with the idea of moving a player like cornerback Robert McClain to safety since their depth is pretty good at cornerback. McClain has a skill set for the job given that he’s a heady corner with ball skills and sound tackling ability. But if such a move was in the cards, it probably would have been reported by now. But McClain’s presence does open up the potential that the Falcons utilize more dime (i.e. six defensive backs) in their sub-packages.
How early the Falcons take a safety could be seen as referendum on both Lowery and Motta. If the Falcons use one of their picks in the first or second round on a safety, then the expectation is that he could be expected to start from the outset and instead Lowery would be asked to serve as a reserve and work in the dime sub-package.
If the Falcons wait until the middle rounds, then the rookie pickup might be expected to have a similar career path as DeCoud. DeCoud was a third-round pick in 2008, and played predominantly special teams his rookie season. He then competed for and won a starting job the following summer, and a third or fourth-round safety from this year’s class could have similar expectations come 2015.
The Falcons could also wait until the tail-end of the draft to select a backup safety, indicating that they have a lot more trust in Lowery, Motta and/or Ishmael than many might expect. And if they go the entire weekend without selecting a safety, it will display the highest degree of confidence in those players.
But given the high number of selections the Falcons hold, it’s a good possibility that one of them will be used on a safety. It’s more a matter of when rather than if.