Next staff will have retooling to do in Falcons’ secondary

120620 ATLANTA: Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen can���t hold on to what appeared to be a sure interception of New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill during the first quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
120620 ATLANTA: Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen can���t hold on to what appeared to be a sure interception of New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill during the first 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@

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series looking at Falcons position groups going into the offseason.

Shortly after the Falcons’ final game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, safety Ricardo Allen was asked to sum up the 2020 season that saw the defense give up numerous big plays and an average of 25.9 points per game.

As it has been the past three years, Allen couldn’t give one definitive reason, which has contributed to the franchise dealing with three consecutive losing seasons.

“It was a lot that went wrong,” Allen said. “You can’t really ever pinpoint anything but I just go back on myself and say we need more out of the players. At the end of the day the players are the ones who play on the field. As a group, we didn’t get it done.”

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The secondary will be crucial to fix if the defense is going to turn things around next season. Offenses are passing more than they ever have before, putting more strain on secondaries. With the advent of the quick passing game, the football is getting out of quarterbacks’ hands in less than three seconds a lot of times. This has meant the secondary must be do more with better talent.

The Falcons will look to improve this area as they enter an offseason that will welcome a new general manager and coach in the coming weeks. Here’s an early look at where things stand with the defensive backfield.

Contracts expiring: At safety, the Falcons have two key players whose contracts are coming to a close in Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee. Neal, who finished out his fifth-year option, was a bright spot on defense after overcoming ACL and Achilles injuries in back-to-back seasons.

With the Falcons needing to be mindful of the salary cap, it’s possible Neal has priced himself out of town. Kazee tore his Achilles in Week 4 against Green Bay and will have to hope his body of work will land him a pricey contract, whether it’s with the Falcons or another team. When healthy, Kazee showcased good ball skills with great speed.

Cornerback Darqueze Dennard played last season on a one-year deal and performed well as both a nickel and outside defender in the secondary. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who also played on a one-year deal, recorded two interceptions in key situations this season. The new regime will have decisions to make as to whether those two corners will be in the rotational plans moving forward. The same goes for safety Sharrod Neasman, also on a one-year deal, who saw time at safety when Allen was injured.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) splits between Atlanta Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (22) and free safety Ricardo Allen (37) after a catch during the first half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. The catch put Evans over the 1,000 yard total for the season. (Mark LoMoglio/AP)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) splits between Atlanta Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (22) and free safety Ricardo Allen (37) after a catch during the first half Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. The catch put Evans over the 1,000 yard total for the season. (Mark LoMoglio/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Still under contract: Allen is slated to enter the final year of his three-year extension, although he will carry an $8.375 million cap hit in 2021. Allen could be someone the Falcons target for a restructure if the new staff determines he’s still a needed piece to the defense -- especially if they are forced to move on from both Neal and Kazee. But the Falcons could save $6.25 million by releasing Allen, so that figures to be an option too. Allen said he’s prepared for whichever direction the Falcons decide to take with his future.

Cornerback A.J. Terrell will enter his second NFL season after having one of the better seasons out of the rookie cornerback class. Kendall Sheffield will enter his third season and Isaiah Oliver will enter the final year of his rookie contract. Oliver moved to nickel during the year and could potentially move to safety based on his skill set. That could be a move that helps the Falcons manage their situation in the secondary for the time being. Jaylinn Hawkins, who saw limited time at safety this year, is another option to step into a larger role as well.

2020 performance: Terrell got a lot of great experience as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. On a weekly basis, he drew assignments against receivers such as Seattle’s DK Metcalf, Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. He held his own in a lot of matchups but went through plenty of growing pains as well. Still, there was a lot to like about Terrell’s season. As far as the overall unit, there’s no way around it. The Falcons did not do a good enough job defending the pass. The Falcons allowed an average of 293.6 passing yards per game, which ranked last in the NFL. This will be an area the next coaching staff must improve at.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell breaks up an incomplete pass intended for Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill during the second half Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell breaks up an incomplete pass intended for Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill during the second half Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Offseason outlook: If the Falcons are unable to keep Neal and Kazee, restructuring Allen’s deal to free up some cap space may be the best option. Allen has all the intelligence to ensure the defense can communicate in the back end. And his presence as a vocal leader and team captain could help bridge the gap between the next coaching staff and personnel on the field. In this scenario, either Hawkins or Oliver, assuming undergoes a position change, would be the favorites to start at strong safety. Oliver could also settle into a nickel role as well.

2021 draft options: With the Falcons picking fourth overall, taking a safety or cornerback seems unlikely. Therefore, if the Falcons wanted to select a corner on the second day of the draft, options include Georgia’s Tyson Campbell, Ohio State’s Shaun Wade and Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. At safety, second-day prospects include TCU’s Trevon Moehrig, Central Florida’s Richie Grant and Oregon’s Jevon Holland.

Conclusion: The numbers show it was not a productive year for the Falcons’ secondary. The incoming coach and general manager will have their hands full retooling the defensive backfield.

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