How do the Falcons Replace Their Stud Strong Safety?
Falcons Scheme and Keanu Neal‘s Role
Falcons coach Dan Quinn is known as the architect of the Seahawks Legion of Boom defense that prominently features a cover-3 scheme. In Atlanta Keanu Neal has been playing in the Kam Chancellor role as the imposing strong safety that plays up in the box and helps patrol the middle of the field. This role is often more similar to a WLB than a modern safety role seen in most defenses.
At 6’0″ and 211 pounds Keanu Neal is able to bring a physical presence similar to that of Kam Chancellor at 6’3″ and 231 pounds. This size and physical presence is something that will be a common theme throughout this article. This SS position is an extremely productive IDP spot assuming the Falcons stick with their scheme. IDP players know this from Neal and Chancellor’s historic production in this system.
Damontae Kazee – The Most Likely Replacement
When Neal went down on Thursday night, the replacement was Damontae Kazee. Kazee was a 5th round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He had an excellent preseason and continued that with strong play when called upon on opening night.
This included an excellent hit on rookie TE Dallas Goedert; a split second after the ball arrived Kazee’s helmet popped the ball right out of Goedert’s hands and created an easy interception for linebacker Deion Jones. He brings physical play at the safety position, but at 5’10” and 184 pounds he just doesn’t have the same physical presence of Neal or Chancellor.
Damontae Kazee seemed to fill the free safety role, while normal free safety Ricardo Allen shifted down into the strong safety role. Allen is also a smaller safety at 5’9″ and 187 pounds. Both Allen and Kazee are solid options at safeties and I believe this will be their top option going forward. Dan Quinn echoed this line of thought by saying they prefer to stay with their in house options first and they like their guys.
If they do stick with this plan, Allen could see a big bump in value playing the SS role. While this duo proved effective in a small sample, it would not be a surprise to see the Falcons look for a bigger, more physical presence to directly replace Neal.
Jordan Richards – The New Guy
Jordan Richards was traded to the Falcons in exchange for a conditional 2020 seventh round pick around roster cut down time. Richards was a 2nd round pick by the Patriots in the 2015 NFL draft. At 5’11” and 211 pounds he’s much closer to Neal’s size.
He did however disappoint in his time in New England and they were willing to essentially give him away this offseason. Richards did not see any defensive snaps in the opener, but this may have been due to his lack of familiarity with the defensive scheme. Richards remains a bit of a dark horse, but could see some time on early downs as a run stopping presence.
Free Agents – Eric Reid and Others
The list of free agent safety options includes Eric Reid, Tyvon Branch, Mike Mitchell, and TJ Ward. These guys all bring a little more size than Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee and have spent at least parts of their career playing strong safety. Eric Reid seems like the best fit here, the former 18th overall pick brings the top talent profile and physicality that would best fill the Neal role.
Speculation remains that he’s only available because of his outspoken nature and support of Colin Kaepernick‘s cause and message. The Falcons have asked players to stand and respect the national anthem, so this may be a negotiation point. The fact that this needs included in football analysis seems ridiculous, but it does seem relevant at this point.
Earl Thomas – Pipe Dream
Thomas has a connection with coach Dan Quinn from their time together in Seattle. A trade seems less likely after Thomas finally reported. Earl Thomas also plays the deep free safety role. This seems extremely unlikely, but the Quinn connection made it worth a quick mention.