The Falcons secondary received a sudden shock after week one when Keanu Neal was ruled out for the season with a torn ACL. While traumatic, it was a manageable situation given Damontae Kazee was waiting in the wings for his opportunity. But once Ricardo Allen went down, things took a swift turn for the worst. Not only were the Falcons forced to scramble to find a capable replacement, but they were also left without their most physical presence and quarterback of their secondary.
In their absence, Atlanta – as expected – experienced some pretty severe growing pains. They allowed 37, 41 and 29 points respectively in the three games following Ricardo Allen’s injury. But slowly and surely, they have started to find more of an identity in the second half of the season. Damontae Kazee has been the most pleasant surprise, and rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver has shown glimpses of being a starting cornerback in the near future. While veteran cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant have seen better days. All of this provides an interesting mix as the team heads into an offseason where a lot of changes are to be made.
What to do at Safety?
With Damontae Kazee proving to be an extremely valuable piece to the Falcons, it’s reasonable to ponder the idea of him starting over Ricardo Allen, who will be coming off a serious injury. Kazee has proven his ability as a ball hawk that he showcased at San Diego State translates to the NFL. He has led the league in interceptions for several weeks and currently ranks tied for third with six on the season. One can only imagine what he might be able to do with Keanu Neal adjacent to him.
However, Dan Quinn reminded us in Wednesday’s press conference that both Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are on track to be ready for the start of next season, and he expects them both to be starters.
Dan Quinn confirmed that if Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen both return healthy, they’ll definitely return as the starters for the #Falcons at strong and free safety next season.
— Kelsey Conway (@FalconsKelsey) December 26, 2018
Dan Quinn said both Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are the starting safeties if fully healthy next season.
— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) December 26, 2018
Neal is a no-brainer, and while Allen may not get the same recognition, he has been one of the most important players on the defense the last two seasons. Not to mention, the Falcons just handed him a new contract last offseason. There’s plenty of reasons both of these players should retain their starting spots, but where does that leave Damontae Kazee?
Kazee’s Krazee 2018
Outside of Grady Jarrett, there hasn’t been a more consistently great defensive player than Damontae Kazee. A former 5th-round pick, he’s already proven to be a steal just two years into his career, racking up 77 tackles and recording six interceptions on the season. While he has become a notorious turnover machine, his willingness to get physical in the run game is almost as impressive.
When asked what he sees Kazee at moving forward, Quinn said a safety/nickel hybrid.
Dan Quinn still sees Damontae Kazee as a safety/nickel moving forward. We'll see how that plays out when Allen returns. Allen continues to mentor Kazee, who is playing at Allen's free safety spot.
— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) December 26, 2018
That’s what the Falcons viewed him as coming out of college, and while the tone in Quinn’s voice may not have changed, the feeling around the locker room has. Kazee is a gamer, and there isn’t any way the Falcons can keep this man off the field. He’s already made it quite clear that he prefers playing corner over safety.
However, I would not count out the possibility of Kazee starting at safety again next year. While Allen may receive the benefit of the doubt, Kazee has been too productive to rule it out completely. Allen is slowly starting to get up there in age and coming off a major lower-body injury. Not to mention, the Falcons cannot leave any stone unturned when deciding how to improve this team.
The Robert Alford decision
This will be the most robust roster decision the Falcons have to make in the secondary this offseason. After a marvelous 2017 campaign, Alford reverted to his ways of the past in 2018, getting beat way too often and committing far too many penalties. He’s now over the age of 30 and can be cut for next-to-nothing in the offseason. With Isaiah Oliver set to take the next step as a starter, and Damontae Kazee possibly in the fold as a cornerback, Alford could find himself a prototypical cap causality once this season ends.
That leaves Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver as the two outside corners for 2019, and Brian Poole and Damontae Kazee as options to play the nickel corner. Not the worst combination of players, providing Oliver continues to progress. However, if the Falcons decide to part ways with Alford, they will likely attempt to add a corner via the draft or free agency as insurance, considering how poor they were at the position this season.