Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: The secondary

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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The Falcons will have a lot of new faces in the defensive backfield next season,

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of an eight-part position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before the first practice of training camp Thursday.

The Falcons ranked last in the NFL — 32nd of 32 teams — in pass defense last season, so few were surprised that the new regime cleaned out the defensive back meeting room.

The Falcons gave up 293.6 yards per game in 2020 and elected to part ways with four top safeties and two of the key cornerbacks in Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Darqueze Dennard.

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“That’s the area where they most blew things up was the secondary, particularly at safety,” Thomas Bassinger, who wrote the essay on the Falcons for the Football Outsiders Almanac 2021, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “That made a lot of sense because they were really prone to explosive pass plays last season. There is a lot of inexperience back there.”

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees, secondary coach Jon Hoke and assistant defensive back coach Nick Perry will conduct the overhaul. Pees started his coaching career as a defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Findlay (Ohio) in 1979.

The Falcons did not re-sign safeties Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Sharrod Neasman. They cut free safety Ricardo Allen.

The only safety the Falcons retained was Jaylinn Hawkins, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 draft.

Neal and Kazee signed with Cowboys; Allen with the Bengals; and Neasman with the Jets.

The Falcons signed veterans Duron Harmon and Erik Harris, who are the projected starters heading into training camp. Former Central Florida standout Richie Grant was selected in the second round of the NFL draft.

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Falcons rookie cornerbacks and safeties Avery Williams (from left), JR Pace, Marcus Murphy, Darren Hall, and Richie Grant line up to run a defensive drill during rookie minicamp on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons rookie cornerbacks and safeties Avery Williams (from left), JR Pace, Marcus Murphy, Darren Hall, and Richie Grant line up to run a defensive drill during rookie minicamp on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Falcons rookie cornerbacks and safeties Avery Williams (from left), JR Pace, Marcus Murphy, Darren Hall, and Richie Grant line up to run a defensive drill during rookie minicamp on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The other safeties on the roster include Dwayne Johnson, T.J. Green and Marcus Murphy.

Harmon started all 16 games for the Lions last season. He knows the secondary will take some time to come together.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Harmon said Tuesday. “We’ve got some young guys. We’ve got some older guys in myself and Erik. Fabian (Moreau) is in Year 5 and Isaiah (Oliver) is in Year 4. But we’ve got a lot of guys here in two (years) and under.”

There’s only way to go from being ranked last.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to take reps,” Harmon said. “Not just reps on the practice field, but reps in the film room. Reps at walk-throughs. Reps with us just getting together and talking ball. It’s going to take time.”

Harris spent part of the offseason working with Grant.

“The young guys were willing to listen to the older guys,” Harris said. “Credit to the defensive staff, they presented the installs very well. Dean Pees, his defense speaks for itself. It’s multiple, but it’s very simplistic and difficult for the opponents.”

Harmon, 30, has played in 127 games, making 45 starts, over eight NFL seasons, with the Patriots and the Lions. He has recorded 248 tackles (191 solo) with two tackles for loss and has 19 interceptions and 33 passes defensed in his career.

Harmon (6-foot-1 and 205 pounds) was drafted by the Patriots in the third round of the 2013 draft out of Rutgers. Harmon believes the Falcons can rebound from their 4-12 finish in 2020.

“If you look at their season, there was probably four of five games where they could have won last year,” Harmon said. “You know, one-possession games that could have went either way. If you take that, then you go from 4-12 to 9-7 and (close to) the playoffs.”

Harmon has played in 17 playoff games, including four Super Bowls. The Patriots won Super Bowls 49, 51, and 53. They lost Super Bowl 52 to the Eagles.

In Super Bowl 51 against the Falcons, Harmon played 29 defensive snaps (59%) and made three tackles in the game. He also was beaten by Taylor Gabriel for a 35-yard gain.

“The one thing about this league is that there is a very, very thin line between being a good team and a bad team,” Harmon said. “I just think obviously, the pieces are (in place). You have to work.”

Harmon believes he fits Pees’ defensive scheme well.

“You have to be smart,” Harmon said. “You have to be able to disguise. You have to be able to do a lot of different things. I just thought that for myself that it would be a good fit.”

He also had a relationship with Falcons special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams, who also was with the Lions last season.

After two seasons (2015-16) with the Saints, Harris, who’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, signed with the Raiders. He spent the previous four seasons with the Raiders.

In 2020, Harris totaled 61 tackles and five pass deflections. With the Raiders, Harris totaled 189 tackles and two interceptions. He became a mainstay on the Raiders’ defense in recent seasons, starting 26 of 30 games over the past two seasons.

Grant also can play the nickel cornerback spot and is strong in run support.

“Yeah, you’re going to be lined up in a lot of different spots,” Grant said. “We’ve been moving around a lot, learning different spots. I’m trying to stay as versatile as possible.”

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Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver breaks up a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara but can’t come down with the interception during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver breaks up a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara but can’t come down with the interception during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver breaks up a pass to Saints running back Alvin Kamara but can’t come down with the interception during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The safeties were not the only problem in the secondary. Isaiah Oliver opened the season as the left corner and eventually moved to nickel back.

The Falcons gave up 66 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which was tied for the most in the NFL with the Lions. Left cornerback A.J. Terrell was the primary man in coverage on 10 of those plays, and right cornerback Kendall Sheffield gave up nine, according to Football Outsiders.

Sheffield’s success rate ranked eighth worst among qualifying cornerbacks, and he allowed the highest yards per pass average, according to Football Outsiders’ analytics. Fabian Moreau, a free-agent signee, lined up at right cornerback with the first unit over the offseason.

Moreau, 27, has been mainly a special-teams player. He’s played in 60 games and made 18 starts.

Moreau, 6-foot and 204 pounds, was drafted when new Falcons vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith was with the Washington Football Team.

Moreau played only 156 defensive snaps (15%) last season. He played 181 special-teams snaps (41%) in 2020.

Wreh-Wilson played 242 defensive snaps (22%) and 105 special-teams snaps (23%) for the Falcons. Dennard played in eight games and made six starts, mostly at right cornerback. He played 437 defensive snaps (40%) and 16 on special teams (4%).

Moreau believes he can help the defense.

“I’m a physical corner, I like to get up and press,” Moreau said. “I like to get in the receiver’s face and just disrupt them the best way that I can.”

Other cornerbacks on the roster include fourth-round draft pick Darren Hall, Chris Williamson, JR Pace, Delrick Abrams and sixth-round pick Avery Williams.

Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:

Part 1: Quarterbacks

Part 2: Running Backs

Part 3: Offensive line

Part 4: Special Teams

Part 5: Wide receivers/Tight ends

Part 6: Defensive line

Part 7: Linebackers

Part 8: Secondary

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Falcons cornerback Fabian Moreau, a free agent addition this offseason, talks about adjusting to the team's scheme and earning a roster spot.

THE AJC’S PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

OFFENSE

WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Tajae Sharpe, 88 Frank Darby, 13 Christian Blake, 86 Antonio Nunn

WR 14 Russell Gage, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 12 Chris Rowland, 82 Austin Trammell, 16 Jeff Badet

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 William Sweet, 72 Willie Beavers

LG 68 Josh Andrews, 77 Jalen Mayfield, 66 Willie Wright, 62 Bryce Hargrove

C 61 Matt Hennessy, 67 Drew Dalman, 65 Joe Sculthorpe

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 64 Ryan Neuzil, 75 Kion Smith, 71 Sam Jones

RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 73 Matt Gono, 77 Jalen Mayfield, 69 Jason Spriggs

TE 8 Kyle Pitts, 81 Hayden Hurst, 85 Lee Smith, 87 Jaeden Graham, 46 Parker Hesse, 80 Ryan Becker, 89 John Raine

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 5 AJ McCarron, 15 Feleipe Franks

HB 28 Mike Davis, 30 Qadree Ollison, 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 25 Javian Hawkins, 42 Caleb Huntley

FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DL 90 Marlon Davidson, 55 Steven Means, 95 Ta’Quon Graham, 79 Chris Slayton

DL 97 Grady Jarrett, 93 Zac Dawe, 94 Deadrin Senat, 98 John Atkins

DL 96 Tyeler Davison, 50 John Cominsky, 99 Jonathan Bullard, 69 Olive Sagapolu

OLB 56 Dante Fowler, 92 Adetokunbo Ogundeji, 42 Shareef Miller, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe

ILB 45 Deion Jones, 51 Brandon Copeland, 53 Erroll Thompson

ILB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 43 Mykal Walker, 48 Dorian Etheridge

OLB 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 49 Kobe Jones, 59 George Obinna

RCB 22 Fabian Moreau, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 29 Chris Williamson

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Tyler Hall, 34 Darren Hall, 38 Marcus Murphy, 41 J.R. Pace

NCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 25 Delrick Abrams, 35 Avery Williams

FS 23 Erik Harris, 27 Richie Grant, 37 Dwayne Johnson

SS 21 Duron Harmon, 32 Jaylinn Hawkins, 39 T.J. Green, 38 Marcus Murphy

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo

P 4 Sterling Hofrichter, 9 Dom Maggio

LS 47 Josh Harris

KO 7 Younghoe Koo

KR 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 12 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams

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