Last season, the Falcons proved that their secondary was by far the best group of their defense. Desmond Trufant showed the world that he is an elite cornerback, Robert Alford quietly flashed his ability to be an effective number 2 CB, and Ricardo Allen was unexpectedly impressive in his first year at free safety. The only glaring issue was the unstable strong safety position that saw injuries, inconsistency, and general lack of talent. Dan Quinn looked to bring in the final missing link to his zone-heavy defense with the addition of Florida safety Keanu Neal. Neal solidifies an already solid unit, and perhaps makes the Atlanta secondary one of the most vaunted in the NFL.
When Roger Goodell announced the 17th pick in the draft this year, many Falcons fans were stunned and confused, as many highly-touted pass rushers and linebackers were still on the board. However, Keanu Neal was just too perfect of a fit for Dan Quinn and the front office to pass up. Neal is a lock to be Atlanta’s starting safety, and if you don’t know who he is now, trust me when I say he will make his presence felt on the defense this year. His extraordinary size and strength, combined with gifted speed, make him a prototype in-the-box safety, giving Dan Quinn exactly what he needs to make the secondary elite. Keanu Neal excels in run support, and immediately comes into the league as one of the hardest hitters in the game. This is a man that turned Derrick Henry into a rag doll. Take a look at some of his best hits at Florida.
Neal is not yet a fully polished player, though, and must work on knowing when to wrap up for a sure tackle versus going for the knock-out. Although he wasn’t known for it at Florida, Dan Quinn said he has been impressed with Neal’s pass coverage and stated that he will see plenty time against tight ends and running backs. He is the nicest man off the field, but is one of the hardest workers on the field. He even spent time training with Kam Chancellor, who is known for some of his own bone-crushing hits as well. Neal and Chancellor have very similar play styles, which is why many say Dan Quinn is completing his mold of Atlanta into a new “Legion of Boom”.
Speaking of Seattle, Falcons secondary coach Marquand Manuel called free safety Ricardo Allen “our Earl Thomas”, again drawing comparison to the Seahawks secondary. Like Earl Thomas, Ricardo Allen is an undersized free safety who relies on exceptional football IQ and strong ball skills to lock down the back of the field. One year out of being brought up from the practice squad and converted from CB to safety, Allen bursted onto the scene by grabbing the starting job at free safety and ended up leading the Falcons in interceptions. Many coaches justify his play due to his relentless work ethic and spending hours upon hours in the film room watching himself, opponents, and other top safeties to try and improve when he’s not on the field.
In 2015, Allen showed the capacity to be exceedingly reliable in pass coverage, but was shaky at times in run support. However, with the addition of Keanu Neal, Allen will be able to play further back and focus on stopping the pass, while Neal will tend to play more in the box like Kam Chancellor does. Allen also must improve on his tackling ability, but that can be coached up over time by Quinn and Manuel. With more reliability around him, and more time to improve, Atlanta should expect another solid season by Allen in his second year at free safety.
Another player who will be crucial to having a strong secondary is fourth-year cornerback Robert Alford. Although he is often picked on by fans and analysts for his penalty-prone game and inconsistent technique, Alford proved in 2015 that he is a highly capable number 2 cornerback. Sure, he had some rough outings against Ted Ginn and Odell Beckham Jr., but he also made some huge plays for the Falcons, including a pick-six in overtime against the Redskins. There were even times when he absolutely shut down receivers, which is justified by the fact that Alford gave up the 4th lowest QB completion rate in the NFL when targeted (49.37% via PFF). If he can clean up his penalties this season and improve his technique, Atlanta is looking at a top-10 cornerback duo with Alford alongside Trufant.
I’ll keep it plain and simple here: Desmond Trufant is easily one of the most underrated defensive players in this league. He shut down many elite WR’s, made his first Pro Bowl, and yet so many analysts do not even put him in their top 10 corners for 2016. This may be because of his quiet and humble personality, his low interception rates, or a combination of both. The reason for his lower statistics is not due to his play, however, but rather the fact that quarterbacks rarely ever test him. He was targeted just 56 times out of 979 snaps in 2015, making him the least targeted starting CB in the league. He essentially shuts down his side of the field with his phenomenal zone coverage and lock-down man coverage. One of the things secondary coach Marquand Manuel wants him to work on for this season is coming down with more picks when he gets in position for 50-50 balls, but other than that, he is one of the most complete defensive backs in the game.
In terms of backups, the Falcons secondary is a bit uncertain as of now. Robenson Therezie will be Allen’s primary backup after turning in a solid rookie campaign, and veteran Kemal Ishmael will be behind Neal at strong safety. Both of these reserve safeties had some big plays for Atlanta in 2015, so they should be key rotational players this year.
The depth at cornerback is where it gets tricky. 2015 second-round pick Jalen Collins is facing a 4-game suspension, which comes after a forgetful rookie year. Though he is gifted with outstanding size and athletic ability, he is extremely raw right now and often finds himself lost in coverage. Until he returns, the Falcons will likely look toward DeMarcus Van Dyke, C.J. Goodwin, Akeem King, or Brian Poole to fill the depth at cornerback. As of now, all of these guys are fighting for roster spots but no one has taken a clear lead and it will most likely come down to the wire to see who makes the final 53.
Overall, the Falcons starting members of the secondary will headline the defense and have a real chance at being one of the top units in 2016. They may not be flashy, they may not be the most experienced, but the talent and coaching are there. Dan Quinn seems to have a secondary that he can use just like he used the dominant LOB in Seattle. In a division with great quarterbacks and talented receivers such as Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, this secondary is going to have their hands full, but their is plenty to look forward to with this group.