Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – June 29, 2015

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsFalcons head coach Dan Quinn has final say over the 53-man roster

All reports indicate that second-year cornerback, now turned safety Ricardo Allen is set to open this summer’s training camp as the Atlanta Falcons’ starting free safety. While I was among the first to recognize Allen’s potential to play safety, this development doesn’t necessarily fill me with confidence.

It’ll be a testament to the new coaching staff if they can get Allen to perform to a respectable level while learning on the job for what is essentially the most important position on the defense, at least if judging by Dan Quinn’s units in Seattle.

It’s well known that Seattle free safety Earl Thomas is the most valuable player on that defensive unit and one of the reasons why they’ve sat ranked among the league’s best defenses for several seasons. That has been spearheaded by the vaunted Seahawks secondary, nicknamed the “Legion of Boom.” While cornerback Richard Sherman may be the most well-known figure in that secondary, it’s Thomas’ presence that forms the foundation for their success. Thomas’ ability to defend the deep ball is one of the reasons why over the past four seasons, the Seahawks have given up a league-low in passing plays of 20 yards or more. The 145 20-yard passing plays they’ve given up over the past four years is nearly a third less than the league average of 203 over that same span.

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Jeron Johnson

Essentially, Allen will be asked to step into that same role. But when comparing Allen to a Seahawks free safety, his skill level is much more akin to backup Jeron Johnson, than Thomas himself.

After four seasons as a reserve in Seattle, Johnson signed with the Washington Redskins this past offseason and is expected to compete for their starting strong safety position. Johnson was an undrafted free agent out of Boise State four years ago when he signed with the Seahawks and quickly carved a role as a valuable contributor on special teams while also working behind Thomas.

Johnson was never blessed with the sort of rare, elite athleticism that Thomas had coming out of Texas a year earlier, but was a smart player known for the occasional big hit during his collegiate days. Johnson was never blessed with great athleticism or size, but was effective in the Seahawks scheme due to good instincts.

When Quinn was first hired, many looked at Dezmen Southward as a potential break-out candidate at free safety due his excellent speed and range potential, mirroring that of Thomas. However those people made the mistake of believing that what set Thomas apart from most was his range. Certainly, Thomas is the front-runner for the league’s rangiest safety, but it’s really his instincts coupled with that range that make him so effective. Thomas’ quick reactions and anticipation when patrolling center field in Seattle’s secondary was more important, becoming more obvious after noticing Johnson as his backup, as he was by no means a safety blessed with “plus” speed or range.

It became clearer that the one defining skill that Seahawks free safeties had in the years under Pete Carroll and Quinn was their smarts and instincts. These two areas were in fact the weakest areas of Southward’s game but relative strengths for a player like Allen, which is why he projected better there.

There’s little doubt that Allen has the skills to play the position, but it’s a matter of whether he will play at a high level. The team also has Kemal Ishmael and Charles Godfrey competing for the role. Ishmael struggled when asked to play the deep ball last year, and is best used playing in the box against the run. He’s tailor-made to be the backup to William Moore at strong safety in Quinn’s scheme and the Falcons are only likely to turn to him at free safety if they are in a major pinch.

That leaves Godfrey as the next best candidate instead of Allen. Godfrey has experience and should benefit from playing in Quinn’s scheme, which will put him more in zone coverage. As I have explained before, over six and a half seasons with the Carolina Panthers Godfrey was asked to play a lot of man coverage, which was never suited to his skills.

Allen worked exclusively with the first team during this past month’s minicamp, suggesting that Godfrey is being pushed to the wayside. But roster battles aren’t decided in June. Even if Allen enters camp atop the depth chart, he’ll have to prove that he can stay there with strong play when it matters.

That may not be because a player like Godfrey is coming for his job, but simply the Falcons won’t be as likely to “stand pat” on their roster as they have been in past years. One of the notable things that occurred during the early years of Carroll’s tenure in Seattle was their constant churning of the roster.

Significant Roster Turnover Likely to Occur in Atlanta

During Carroll’s first year in Seattle, the team added seven players to their roster between the final cuts and opening day. In his second year, the team made five additions. Comparatively speaking, the Falcons have made just five such additions over the past six combined seasons. That figure is slightly inflated due to counting the additions of cornerback Kelvin Hayden and safety James Sanders in 2011, who were technically signed before the final cuts were made. The other three additions were cornerback Brian Williams (2009), offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood (2013) and linebacker Nate Stupar (2014).

Overall, the Falcons have been much more complacent content with the state of their roster after training camp has been over. It’s likely that the Seahawks brand of doing business will follow Quinn to Atlanta. So if neither Allen nor Godfrey solidify the starting free safety spot, there’s a much greater chance that the Quinn-led Falcons will seek someone who can elsewhere.

We already saw a glimpse of this during the offseason when the Falcons made several low-level roster moves during the first few days in May. The team signed all 10 players that finished the season on their practice squad to reserve/future contracts as well as tight end Mickey Shuler. But early in May, the team cut six of those players. Those 11 players were signed by the team a month before Quinn officially took over as head coach and basically weren’t fitting what he was looking for at those spots, so the team moved on.

One can expect the team to have a similar approach come August and September with the rest of the roster. Last summer, the Falcons infamously stood pat at tight end despite obvious signs that Levine Toilolo was not ready for the starting job. The team decided to keep center Peter Konz as well, despite clear signs that he was a square peg in the team’s new blocking scheme. And perhaps their biggest sin was their continued neglect of the pass rush.

Such circumstances are unlikely to repeat this first year under Quinn, especially since the team’s newest head coach will have final say over the 53-man roster. Not only is this likely to be the team’s approach to enhance their roster before opening day of the regular season, but it’s likely to continue into the first two months of the season. Let’s not forget that the Seahawks made two prominent trades in October 2010 during Carroll’s first season there to acquire running back Marshawn Lynch and trade away wide receiver Deion Branch. A year hasn’t gone by since when the Seahawks did not make a notable trade.

Trades a Regular Feature of Seahawks Roster Re-Shaping

In 2011 they swapped cornerback Kelly Jennings, who started 14 games the previous year, for a rotational backup defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. They also dealt former first-round bust linebacker Aaron Curry to Oakland that same year. In 2012, they parted ways with backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and linebacker Barrett Ruud during training camp. Jackson started 14 games the previous season, but the Seahawks had subsequently acquired Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson to replace him.

In both 2013 and 2014, their prominent trades involved wide receiver Percy Harvin, at first to acquire him from the Minnesota Vikings followed by shipping him off to the New York Jets. They also picked up quarterback Terrelle Pryor via the Raiders in the spring of 2014, but cut him by the end of training camp that same year. Their blockbuster trade to acquire tight end Jimmy Graham from the New Orleans Saints set off free agency with a bang this past spring.

It might be naive to expect the Quinn-led Falcons to be as active as the Seahawks in the trade market, as few can be. But unlike past years, the chances that the Falcons pull off a deal as the trade deadline in late October approaches has increased exponentially.

The bottom line is if the Falcons have a weakness anywhere on the roster, the expectation today is that they won’t cross their fingers, close their eyes and hope things get better. They now have the leadership in place that is actively going to seek those improvements rather than wishing them into existence as the previous regime once did.

That won’t mean that there won’t be missteps along the way. The Seahawks can certainly attest, as they certainly did not bat a thousand when it came to post-camp and midseason moves working in their favor, with Harvin being the most noteworthy example.

However, gone should be the days where the Falcons roll out a player like Garrett Reynolds for three consecutive years as the starting right guard. The Falcons under Quinn aren’t going to be as faithful in players that aren’t getting the job done and the time it takes for them to move on will likely be counted in months rather than years.

As that applies to Allen at free safety, he’ll be under scrutiny each and every week this season. Should he win the starting gig this summer, then he’ll have to meet certain standards of play, or face the potential of being replaced sooner rather than later.

With next year’s safety draft class expected to be much stronger than this past year’s, the only thing stopping the Falcons from upgrading the position will be if Allen plays well enough.

Yet that won’t be the case solely at the free safety position, but several other spots across the Falcons roster. When looking at the current projected 22 starters on the roster, less than a third of them are guaranteed to retain those spots heading into 2016. That’s not to suggest that the Falcons will have 15 or so new starters a year from now. Instead, there will be 15 or so players that will have something to prove this season. That creates the sort of environment that fosters competition and thus a reason why one can expect improvement from the Falcons in 2015.

Falcons Roster Turnover in Secondary Indicate of Future Success

A player like Allen should benefit from that environment. A year ago, he was the third cornerback the team added during the offseason that stood shorter 5’10”. The Falcons were simply collecting small cornerbacks when they should have been doing the exact opposite. Allen essentially became extraneous because the team already had Robert McClain, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas, who were more experienced and/or better versions of the same player.

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Jalen Collins

None of those four corners remain with the team. Allen has moved to safety, while McClain, Wilson and Arenas were each allowed to walk away in free agency. It somewhat summarizes the poor roster management that has plagued this team for years with general manager Thomas Dimitroff calling the shots. It’s no coincidence that Quinn was quick to course-correct by selecting Jalen Collins in the second round of this past year’s draft.

It’s obvious that Quinn’s scheme prefers bigger corners, but that inclination isn’t purely schematic. A league-wide trend has seen receivers get bigger and bigger every year. That was reflected as the Falcons saw several big receivers on their schedule a year ago, but the former regime was so ignorant of this reality, their solution was to try and collect one of the league’s smallest group of cornerbacks.

While I’m not quite optimistic enough to think that Allen will play at a level in 2015 that will keep the Falcons from using a top draft pick on a free safety next spring, I’m certainly optimistic that the position will get fixed sooner rather than later.

I’ve expected Godfrey to fill in as the stopgap option for the team at tsafety, but it may in fact be Allen that fulfills that role. Even if Allen struggles for the entire season, it will benefit him and the team potentially in the long run.

Should the Falcons make the move to upgrade the free safety spot next offseason, there will be far less concern about depth at that position since Allen will have a year’s experience under his belt. Coupled with the fact that Allen is still young and learning a new position, there still will be room for growth.

That’s the new worst-case scenario for the Quinn-led Falcons when it comes to roster building while the former regime’s style has been displayed at the nickel cornerback position over the past year. While the Falcons were able to upgrade the spot with the addition of Collins, they still currently lack depth at the position because none of the team’s four corners from a year ago were held over. A year from now at safety that is unlikely to be the case, with Allen providing strong Jeron Johnson-esque depth behind whomever the team views as their version of Earl Thomas.

Obviously, the best-case scenario is that Allen proves doubters like myself wrong and plays well this year. After all, even if he’s only as good as Johnson, it’s noteworthy that he might become a capable starter for the Redskins in 2015.

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Aaron Freeman
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