Falcons Post-Draft Roster Breakdown: Safeties

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This is the tenth and final installment of a comprehensive positional breakdown for the Falcons following April’s draft. Thus far, I’ve analyzed the quarterbacksrunning backswide receiverstight ends, offensive and defensive linemenEDGEs, linebackers, and cornerbacks. Today, we will explore the safety depth chart and the Falcons second-round pick that I believe could be a Pro Bowler in just a couple of years. Dean Pees runs a defense that requires his safeties to be versatile in everything they do — stars, moneybackers, etc. They’re hybrids between linebackers and safeties and are critical to success in this league, particularly in this defense, because Pees needs guys that can cover an athletic tight end or wide receiver and support the run in the box. Looking back on his personnel in Tennessee, there are similarities in the Falcons safeties.

Safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are both big and physical enough to play in the box or blitz while also having the range and cover chops to play deep or man up on athletic tight ends or even wide receivers. The team has doubled down on flexible safeties in the last two drafts, taking Dane Cruikshank in the fifth round last year and Amani Hooker in the fourth round this year. Both Cruikshank and Hooker spent time at both safety and what their coaches called the “star” position in college, essentially playing as a big nickel thanks to their diverse skill sets. All four of the Titans safeties check in between 5’-11” and 6’-1” and between 209 and 214 pounds. Any one of these guys would be capable of playing as a “big nickel” or “big dime” type role.

Duron Harmon

Harmon was someone I’ve been a big advocate for this entire offseason because he played in Bill Belichick’s 3-3-5 defense that is eerily similar to what Dean Pees runs. Harmon does everything well but nothing exceptionally and provides great leadership being a team captain in Detroit and New England. His run-support as a free safety is elite, and it’s rare to have someone as reliable as Harmon is against the run as he does a great job filling gaps. His quick and accurate diagnosing skills help in this area, but they also help when he’s patrolling the backend. He will provide valuable learning for Richie Grant and will likely get snaps in single-high, in the slot, and in the box this year.

Richie Grant

Grant is also someone I was calling for the Falcons to draft because he’s an ideal safety for Pees and this defense. He’s able to play at every alignment adequately — as I pointed out in a pre-draft article calling for Terry Fontenot to take Grant with the 35th pick:

Grant can play any role in any coverage Dean Pees decides to deploy. He possesses sideline-to-sideline range with explosive acceleration, which allows him to take tight ends and running backs in man coverage, not just cover ground as a single-high or split-zone safety. Grant has incredible ball skills but packs a punch as a run-defender. He’s likely a free safety at the next level, but with that said, he can comfortably work in the slot. He can even play in the box when needed due to his efforts in run defense and physical nature.

There are limitations to his game, such as his age and weight. A hair under 200-pounds and 24-years-old, Grant is easily handled by blockers and might not have the same longevity as younger prospects. These are normal concerns, but nothing ground-breaking that can’t be overlooked. His playstyle is aggressive, so he occasionally misses tackles as well as bites on play-action, but he’s a clean prospect with a ton of upside — a future “do-it-all” safety that Pees can move around like a chess piece.

Erik Harris

Harris will likely be the one coming off the bench while Harmon and Grant start, but he could be underrated. He’s a former team captain in Las Vegas who communicates as well as any veteran. Though he struggled last year tackling, he does provide that versatility that Pees covets. All three of these safeties can be used on the field together and drop into coverage or blitz from any alignment — they all compliment each other well.

Jaylinn Hawkins

Hawkins was drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL draft, but he was delegated to mostly special teams responsibilities during his rookie year. It doesn’t bode well for him that Terry Fontenot drafted a safety with a second-round pick, but Hawkins is another versatile safety. He’s got the foot speed to backpedal from the slot and the size to play in the box, so it’ll be interesting to see what role he can carve out in this defense.

TJ Green

Green appeared in all 16 games for the Colts in 2017 for Ted Monachino’s defense, tallying 45 total tackles, five tackles for loss, and one pass defense. As a rookie in 2016, he notched 43 tackles, and three quarterbacks hit. He’s shown the ability to be versatile and stands a shot at making the roster based on the lack of depth at safety.

Dwayne Johnson Jr.

Johnson was a special teamer at San Diego State before starting in 2019, but that’s where he’ll make a name for himself in Atlanta. He’s a massive physical safety that would be perfect for the big nickel safety role as a hybrid linebacker in this defense, but if he makes the team, it’ll be because of his special team prowess.

Marcus Murphy

Murphy is a freak athlete with decent technique in coverage. He wasn’t a great tackler at Missippis State and will have a long way to go to prove he’s worth a roster spot, but safety is an area where a couple of undrafted players could stick.

JR Pace

Pace is similar to Grant in that he’s versatile enough to be moved all over a defense with great size and ball skills, hauling in eight career interceptions. He tested poorly, but Pace will have to make the team first on special teams, like all the other fringe roster players.

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