The Falcons received the devastating yet expected news yesterday that Keanu Neal will miss the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. It’s another horrendous break for a defense that has not been able to stay healthy for the past two seasons. But more than anything, this hurts for Neal, who has only been able to compete in four games over the last two years and will once again have to undergo the painful road to recovery in hopes of returning to 100% for the 2020 season.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn began his press conference by expressing how he felt “heartbroken” for his star safety after he suffered a torn ACL in Week 1 last year, but also gave us insight on how the Falcons will approach the situation. Inevitably, many are wondering if the team will bring someone in from the outside – in particular – a former All-Pro safety that hails from inside the state and is currently looking for a job.
How the Falcons plan to address the situation
Damontae Kazee seems like an obvious choice to move back to safety. He thrived in the role a year ago but has not been nearly as successful as a nickel corner. He graded out as a 77.2 last season at safety, according to PFF, and is currently sitting at a 48.2 thus far in 2019. However, the problem with that is the depth issues it creates at the corner position.
The Falcons parted ways with Robert Alford and Brian Poole this offseason, meaning rookie Kendall Sheffield or Blidi Wreh-Wilson would have to step up in the nickel spot with rookie Jordan Miller also seeing an extended role. From the press conference, it doesn’t seem like Dan Quinn is too infatuated with the prospect of that, saying they like Kazee in his nickel role. Of course, that could change if the Falcons can’t find someone to effectively fill in for Neal quickly.
Quinn mentioned Kemal Ishmael as a player that will receive more reps, complimenting his ability as a tackler, which is a must for the way the Falcons like to play their strong safety at the line of scrimmage. Ishmael has also spent time playing linebacker in Atlanta, but he won’t be the only player the Falcons rely on to fill in for Neal. Quinn said it will be more than a one-person job, and the team plans to add another safety before next week’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
Dan Quinn said Ishmael will get that look at strong safety with his tackling but it will be more than just one person to replace Neal. Quinn said the plan is to add another safety
— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) September 23, 2019
Is Eric Berry a legitimate option?
Eric Berry is a Creekside High School product out of Fairburn, Georgia. He took his talents to the University of Tennesse, where he became the best safety in the country and was drafted 5th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs.
It didn’t take him long to make his impact in the NFL. Berry made the Pro-Bowl as a rookie and in three of his first four seasons. He’s been named a first-team All-Pro three times – the last coming in 2016 – two years removed from a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis that kept him out for a chunk of the 2014 season. It was one of the genuinely remarkable comeback stories and resulted in the Chiefs signing him to a six-year, $78 million contract before the 2017 season. Unfortunately, the deal never woked out for either side.
In Week 1 of the 2017 season, Berry tore his Achilles, ending his season. He returned the next season but was hampered by Haglund’s deformity, a bone spur that digs into the Achilles, causing him to miss all but two regular-season games and one postseason contest; which eventually led to his release this past offseason. The Chiefs signed Tyrann Mathieu, giving them the freedom to part ways with Berry, who they designated a post-June 1st cut, saving them $15 million over the next two seasons.
After he was released, many believed it would be a matter of time before Berry found a new team. The fact that it has yet to happen suggests his injury history is much more problematic than initially thought. If he could still make a substantial impact, he would be on an NFL team. So for those Falcons fans wondering if Berry can replace Neal, possibly, but don’t expect him to be the player he once was.
Atlanta has the cap space to reach out to Berry if they so chose. That isn’t the issue; the issue is whether or not he can still be a productive player in the NFL. I’d like to give him a shot because, frankly, there aren’t many other tantalizing options out there. At least Berry comes with a glimmer of upside and the potential of a feel-good story about the hometown kid resurrecting his All-Pro career. However, if the Falcons choose not to go in that direction; it’s probably for a good reason.
Dan Quinn said the team will be evaluating all of there external options. Other safeties on the market include T.J. McDonald, Jordan Richards, and George Iloka. We will see if Berry passes the eye test and ends up in Flowery Branch by the end of the week.