Similar to their linebacker position, the Atlanta Falcons were forced to make do at safety in 2014 thanks to an injury to their top player: William Moore. However few of those options may be counted upon to be major contributors in 2015 under new head coach Dan Quinn.
That’s because the safety position was a very important part of the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive success while Quinn was an assistant there in recent years. That was embodied in free safety Earl Thomas, who was arguably the most important defender on that team the past four seasons.
Thomas’ tremendous ability to play centerfield in Seattle’s oft-used Cover-3 sets was a key reason why that defense topped the league the past two years. Essentially, it became extremely difficult to throw over the top of the Seahawks’ defense because of Thomas’ elite range and ball skills. Any pass that hung up in the air down field was ripe to be picked off. His five interceptions in 2013 were a testament to this.
The Falcons clearly lack this element in their secondary. Kemal Ishmael, who was primarily tasked with repalcing an injured Moore in 2014 routinely struggled defending the deep pass. A healthy Moore is a more effective centerfielder than he is often given credit for, but employing him in the same fashion as Thomas would be a misuse of his skills. Like Ishmael, Moore is at his best playing the run closer to the line of scrimmage.
Both are expected to be deployed at strong safety, a position that for the time being appears to be fine. But Moore turns 30 in May and will carry a cap hit of $5.65 million. He’ll only be a year older and cost more money in 2016, so the Falcons have to be cognizant of the possibility that Moore’s age and price tag may prevent him from playing that much longer in Atlanta.
They’ll likely give Ishmael a year to showcase whether or not he’s an option as a potential successor to Moore in the starting lineup. Should Ishmael show growth in 2015, there’s a good chance he could be penciled in as a starter as early as 2016. If not, then the Falcons may be looking for a strong safety with starting potential in 2016.
But for the time being, the Falcons’ focus is likely to be on finding a centerfielder to play free safety. Dezmen Southward possesses the tools to develop into that sort of player thanks to his range potential. But Southward’s biggest weaknesses are questionable instincts and awareness in zone, two critical factors to being a success in centerfield. Thus, it’s no wonder why the Falcons are tinkering with the notion of moving him to cornerback where those deficiencies should be less problematic.
Last year, the free safety position was filled by Dwight Lowery, who proved to be a successful late free-agent signing. Lowery is best utilized covering tight ends and slot receivers thanks in large part due to his past experience playing cornerback. While a better option playing centerfield than the Falcons’ other safeties, he is not ideally suited for that role and thus it is no surprise that he is not expected to return to the Falcons.
The Falcons instead re-signed Charles Godfrey to a one-year deal. Godfrey is better suited than Lowery to playing free safety in the new scheme. However at this point, Godfrey is probably only seen as a temporary band-aid at the position. He should be a competent starter but ideally the Falcons will find an upgrade this offseason.
There may be several options in free agency including: Devin McCourty, Rahim Moore and Ron Parker. McCourty is one of the league’s premier free safeties and could easily fill the role that Thomas had in Seattle. But he’ll be an expensive addition, and the Falcons may not be as willing to pay top dollar for his services.
Moore was an effective centerfielder for the Broncos the past few years, but an injury that nearly cost him his leg in 2013 has slowed him down somewhat. But he should be much cheaper than McCourty and would represent an upgrade over the Falcons’ current options.
Parker played safety for the Chiefs in the absence of Eric Berry in 2014. But he’s probably better suited to play cornerback in Quinn’s scheme, and would likely be a starting option at free safety if a better one doesn’t come along.
And unfortunately, the draft doesn’t appear to be an ideal place where the Falcons can get an immediate starter. Instead, they’d likely have to settle for drafting a developmental option and going with a veteran like Godfrey or Parker for the immediate future. The 2015 draft class at safety just isn’t that strong and there are few obvious candidates that stand out as players that could fill Thomas’ role for Atlanta. The team could potentially find someone in the middle or later rounds of the draft that has developmental potential to become a starter down the road.
The Falcons may wind up settling this offseason for stopgap options at free safety, hoping that next year’s free-agent crop and/or draft class could bear more fruit.