In recent news, Terry Fontenot cut veteran safety Ricardo Allen — saving the Falcons around $6 million against the cap. With Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee entering free agency, the only safeties on the roster are Jaylinn Hawkins and T.J. Green. It’s safe to say the position will look much different in 2021 than it did in 2020. Atlanta will need two starting-caliber safeties this offseason, and I expect Fontenot to build the backend similarly as the one in New Orleans is.
Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins were the main starters, but DC Dennis Allen runs sub-packages so frequently Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was essentially a #3 but playing as much as #1 and #2. All three were drafted by the Saints, but New Orleans brought Jenkins in through free agency this past offseason. So I can see the Falcons acting similarly, drafting one starting-caliber safety and signing one in free agency — while Hawkins plays a #3 role. These are the starting-caliber free agents that fit Dean Pees’ defense and Arthur Smith and Fontenot’s culture.
The cultural fit is clear. Fontenot drafted Williams out of Utah. But that’s the least convincing reason to reunite Fontneot and Williams in Atlanta. First, the Minneapolis Miracle was a fluke; Williams is one of the best safeties in football. According to PFF, he has a coverage grade that ranks in the 90th percentile to go with the highest forced incompletions rate. He’s incredible as a “centerfield” deep safety — his range and instincts have allowed him to total 30 pass breakups and 13 interceptions over the last four years — and he supports the run just as well. The best thing about Williams is he’d be able to cover up the faults of whichever young safety he ends up playing next to.
Usually, former Patriot players underperform in a new setting but not Harmon. He was traded to the Lions and unquestionably performed well in all regards. Although he is a free safety, Harmon’s ability to provide stellar run-support is unparalleled at his position. Harmon can be one of those players whose worth Justin Simmons-esque money but doesn’t get it due to his age and playing in a horrible Matt Patricia defense — as the fourth highest-graded safety halfway through 2020.
Highest-graded safeties of 2020:
1. Jessie Bates III – 90.1
2. Justin Simmons – 81.1
3. Budda Baker – 78.0
4. Duron Harmon – 77.0
5. Jarrod Wilson – 76.0 pic.twitter.com/7zFObJq4KM
— PFF (@PFF) November 12, 2020
Harmon’s physicality as a free safety allows him to play more positions than a traditional free safety could. These videos below are from before he was traded to Detroit, but it wasn’t that long ago — he’s got plenty left in the tank for a three-year contract. Note all the different alignments, single-high, in the box, and rotating down from a split safety look. He could do everything asked of him in a Dean Pees’ scheme. He’s also exemplified the Patriot way, so the cultural fit should be seamless too. Even more so than Williams, Harmon would help a rookie safety develop.
great job coming up from safety to quickly fill gap and force rb into traffic pic.twitter.com/vm4O68iRH5
— mansur (@mansurshaheen) March 22, 2020
playing deep safety here. quick to read and react to qb and gets all the way to the sideline just in time to break up the play pic.twitter.com/LJsl1TchiD
— mansur (@mansurshaheen) March 22, 2020
John Johnson III
When he’s healthy, Johnson is an elite safety — expect him to get paid like one too. His dominant trait is his coverage. According to PFF, Johnson’s 85.6 coverage grade ranked fourth among safeties during the regular season, marking the third time in four seasons he was at or above 84.9 — as well as PFF’s third-highest-graded safety, with an 85.6 overall grade. Johnson can play free or strong safety, in the box, single-high, in the slot, and can defend the run effectively from all of these alignments, which is an attractive attribute in the Pees’ system. Johnson could play literally whatever his defensive coordinator needed him to, allowing whichever rookie brought in to play their natural position.
John Johnson III has been so damn good this year. This is art. pic.twitter.com/a1H12uJmNy
— Robert Mays (@robertmays) January 13, 2021