As the Atlanta Falcons began the first practices of their rookie minicamp this week, we gained more insight into the team’s plans at one of the more problematic positions on the roster: free safety. According to head coach Dan Quinn, Charles Godfrey, Kemal Ishmael and Ricardo Allen appear the top candidates competing for the starting position vacated by Dwight Lowery.
The expectation that Godfrey would be penciled in as Lowery’s likely replacement came earlier this offseason when the team opted to re-sign Godfrey to a one-year deal instead of Lowery. Godfrey signed a one-year deal worth $1.2 million. Lowery eventually took a lesser deal (one year, $950,000) with the Indianapolis Colts.
That was a shock to many, as Lowery proved to be one of the few players on the Falcons’ 2014 defense that wasn’t horrible. Meanwhile, Godfrey was a disastrous player for the Carolina Panthers through the early part of 2014 and once picked up by the Falcons, sat the bench for two months. Essentially the logic went, if Godfrey couldn’t earn his way onto the field with last year’s defense, then there’s simply no way he can be good.
However, that logic rests on a lot of false assumptions. The first of which is that the previous regime’s decisions in regards to managing the roster were the right ones.
The second and biggest false assumption is that all safeties are created equal, especially given the differences between schemes. As I explained in a previous takeaways column, Godfrey is a better fit for what Quinn’s defense is going to ask the free safety to do than he was in former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme.
The latter scheme essentially tried to use the free safety as an extra slot corner. It’s why Lowery was so effective in that role, thanks to his past history as a cornerback. While Godfrey and Lowery share similar origin stories, as collegiate cornerbacks that were changed into NFL safeties, they are not the same player.
As I explained previously, Godfrey was never really a great cornerback, at least as far as man coverage goes. That was more than proven a year ago when he was terrible as the Panthers’ nickel cornerback after several years of starting at either safety spot.
Even in those years where he played safety, the Panthers often wanted Godfrey to function as an extra cornerback to cover slot receivers and tight ends. Godfrey never excelled in that defensive scheme, which is why he was so often among the least effective safeties in coverage throughout the early part of his career. He received coverage grades among the 12 worst safeties in the league in three out of his first four seasons according to premium website Pro Football Focus.
However in Quinn’s scheme, Godfrey will be asked to play less of a role in man coverage and basically cover the deep half as a single-high center fielder in zone coverage. That is an area of relative strength for Godfrey, given his good speed and range (he ran a 4.38-second 40 at his pro day way back in 2008). While he’s not as spry as he once was, Godfrey still possesses enough speed to be able to do what is necessary in Quinn’s scheme.
Godfrey is also a capable tackler that understands angles and should prove more than capable in run support, which were not strengths of either Lowery or his predecessor, Thomas DeCoud. The bottom line is that while Godfrey won’t make anybody forget about Earl Thomas, but he’s more than capable of being a functional starter for a year at free safety.
In reality, the larger concern at free safety should not involve who will start, but who will provide depth. As things stand today, Kemal Ishmael is the likeliest candidate. However, Ishmael proved over and over and over and over again last year that his ability to play center field was underwhelming at best.
Barring major improvement in either instinctually or in the speed department, Ishmael at free safety could prove problematic should Godfrey go down with an injury. Ishmael’s ideal role in the Quinn scheme will be playing the strong safety spot manned by William Moore, which will ask him to play more intermediate zones and not have his speed and range (or lack thereof) taxed in deep coverage. Ishmael will play closer to the line of scrimmage at strong safety, which like Moore is where the strength of his game lies.
Allen presents an intriguing option for the Falcons. I intimated a year ago after drafting him, that if Allen was a few inches taller and several pounds heavier, he would have made a much better safety prospect than the team’s third-round selection Dezmen Southward. It would appear that a year later, Quinn is thinking along similar lines.
Southward is expected to make the transition to cornerback, although there’s a good possibility that once training camp arrives, he’ll also get reps in the safety rotation. But for the time being, it doesn’t appear that the Falcons view him as a viable candidate to start at safety.
The strengths of Allen’s game coming out of Purdue were his ball skills, instincts in zone and ability to contribute in run support. All of those are traits that Quinn’s scheme likes in its free safeties. The only real knock on Allen is his lack of size. Standing 5’9” and 187 pounds, he’d be among the smallest safeties in the NFL should he be forced to start.
Based off current depth charts, the average size of a starting safety in the NFL is roughly 6’ and 207 pounds. Only two potential starters stand under 5’10”: Shamarko Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu. Thomas is a rock-solid 217 pounds, while Mathieu weighs in at 186, the same as Allen. However, Mathieu is for the most part a nickel specialist than a true safety in Arizona. Only 10 prospective starters weigh less than 200 pounds, with Nat Berhe being the lightest besides Mathieu at 194 pounds.
Based off his size, it’s unlikely that Allen is built to hold up as a 16-game starter. Instead, he might be better off serving in a role comparable to Mathieu, which is as a sub-package specialist rather than a full-time starter. More than likely, if the Falcons like what Allen does this spring and summer, they will essentially use 2015 as a “redshirt” season where he’ll be asked to gain weight and get closer to 200 pounds. With that extra bulk, he should be better able to absorb the punishment that he’ll have to endure as he looks to throw his weight around in run support. But even if he hit 200 pounds, Allen would still remain one of the smaller safeties in the NFL.
Thus it means that should Godfrey be injured at some point this summer or during the season, the team will be compelled to turn to Ishmael as the primary backup. If Ishmael doesn’t avoid the mental errors that consistently plagued him a year ago, then the team is likely going to have to turn to Moore to basically play center field in that event.
While Moore is more than capable of doing it due to solid instincts and range, it would result in the Falcons’ seventh-year veteran not being used to his fullest capabilities. Basically when looking at Moore, he’s perfect for the “Kam Chancellor role” in Quinn’s defense. But that role essentially only exists because of the presence of Earl Thomas, which frees up Chancellor from having to perform in deep coverage.
That may ultimately not prove to be the case in Atlanta since Godfrey is a far cry from Thomas. Instead of the “Cover-3” that is the identity of the Seahawks defense that Quinn is incorporating here in Atlanta, the Falcons may be forced to play a lot more “Cover-2″ than Quinn’s defense normally allows.
That’s going to be one of the biggest questions surrounding Quinn this year. Known as a coach that will adapt around his players, that might be put to the test given the state of the Falcons depth chart at safety. When Godfrey, Moore and an undersized Allen are the best center fielders on your roster, the situation is far less favorable than it was in Seattle with an elite safety like Thomas.
It should also be noted that the Falcons aren’t necessarily going to stand pat at the position. Unlike the previous regime (which includes current general manager Thomas Dimitroff), who were notorious for turning a blind eye to obvious holes on the roster, the modus operandi of the Seahawks during Quinn’s tenure there was the polar opposite. Thus, the Falcons still might address the safety position as we near September, either by scooping a player off the waiver wire or making a trade.
There are several position battles elsewhere in the NFL worth keeping an eye as we near the summer. Josh Evans played for Quinn at the University of Florida, but has lost favor with the Jacksonville Jaguars thanks to poor play the past two years. The Jaguars added Sergio Brown and James Sample this offseason, likely relegating Evans to the bench. While he won’t be an upgrade over Godfrey as a starter, Evans would at least improve depth and offer a potential reclamation project for team.
The Arizona Cardinals are a team deep at safety with Rashad Johnson and Chris Clemons backing up Mathieu at free safety. Swinging a trade for Johnson would be a real coup since he’s among a handful of NFL safeties that could be considered “Earl Thomas Lite.” But Clemons might be a more realistic option given that Johnson was widely considered among the Cardinals’ most valuable defenders a year ago. Clemons played centerfield comfortably for years with the Miami Dolphins, and is no sure bet to make the roster. At the very least, he would give the Falcons another veteran option to turn to if Godfrey goes down or fails to meet expectations.
Denver’s David Bruton has spent the bulk of the past six years shining on special teams, but when he’s had opportunities to earn regular reps on defense, he’s played well. Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith is certainly familiar with him from their shared time in Denver and while he’s unlikely to be cut, might be a potential trade option at the end of the summer.
All in all, free safety going to be a position worth monitoring over the coming months to see how effective Godfrey will be in the scheme, as well as if any quality depth can emerge through the magic of competition. But for now, the Falcons are relatively content at the position and like so many other parts of the roster will be in “wait and see” mode.
Even if you remain unconvinced that Godfrey is a good candidate to start at free safety this year, one positive that is impossible to overlook is that Quinn is very unlikely to ignore the position unlike the previous regime. That should at least offer the hope that things can and will get better than they stand today.