This is the ninth of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster after their offseason program. Coming Friday: Special Teams. When the Falcons report for training camp on July 26, they’ll welcome entrenched starters Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen.
Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen, just a novice to the back end of the defense in his own right, took rookie strong safety Keanu Neal under his wing last season.
Allen, a converted cornerback, was in just his second season as a starter. However, that didn’t stop him from showing Allen the ropes in the NFL.
The Falcons are hoping they’ll continue to grow together.
“When you look at a guy like Keanu, and the position that he plays is probably one of the more difficult positions to play in our system is the strong safety because he’s a hybrid between a free safety and a linebacker,” defensive backs coach Doug Mallory said. “There are times when he’s down in the box like a linebacker would be, but he’s got to be athletic enough to match up and cover a tight end.
“There are times where he has to be able to match up on wide receivers and there are times where, again, he’s going to be back playing in the middle of the field. So, it is a unique position.”
Neal played roughly 83 percent of the team’s snaps, third-most on the defense. He played his highest snap percentage (40) at down low at linebacker level, according to Pro Football Focus.
Neal is expecting more of the same with some additional middle-of-the-field duties. He’s focused the offseason on improving his work in man coverage.
“I’ve honestly been emphasizing my press coverage,” he said. “My step kick, things like that. Getting with (Mallory), my teammates, working together. When I get the opportunity on the field, I just lock it in and pay attention to the details.
“I just want to get better as a player and person, to continue to grow in every aspect of my life. On the field, just work on middle-of-the-field stuff, my man coverage. I want to be a more complete player. I want to focus on my weaknesses and turn them into strengths.”
Neal, who was considered a “reach” as the 17th draft pick in the 2016 draft, quickly blossomed and provided a physical presence to the defense.
Allen has successfully made the transition from cornerback to free safety.
He played 1,101 defensive snaps (99.1 percent), most on the team last season, in just his second year at free safety. Drafted as a cornerback in the fifth-round of the 2014 draft out of Purdue, Allen was cut and then made his way back up to roster through the practice squad.
Critical to his transformation was the arrival of coach Dan Quinn, who converted him to free safety. The position had been a black hole on the defense since Thomas DeCoud slipped from Pro Bowl status after the 2012 season.
The free safety in the Falcons defense is required to cover a lot of ground and, if things go wrong as they sometimes do, he’s the last line of defense.
Allen started all 19 games and made 104 tackles, had five pass breakups and four interceptions. He cut down his missed tackles total from 19 to 11. He has followed that up with a strong offseason.
“Ricardo is playing out of his mind,” defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said.
The Falcons must find some depth behind Allen and Neal. Kemal Ishmael, Neal’s backup last season, has been moved to linebacker. Veteran Dashon Goldson was not re-signed.
Sharrod Neasman, who’s been in the teams developmental program, is a possibility. The team also had Brian Poole and rookie Damontae Kazee spend some time at safety over the offseason.
2017 ATLANTA FALCONS 90-MAN ROSTER ANALYSIS
Part 10: Specialists
Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 14 Justin Hardy, 19 Andre Roberts, 1 Reggie Davis, 17 Marvin Hall
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 66 Kevin Graf, 79 Will Freeman
LG 67 Andy Levitre, 64 Sean Harlow, 72 Cornelius Edison, 69 Marquis Lucas
C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 Travis Averill, 62 Cam Keizur
RG [71 Wes Schweitzer, 63 Ben Garland], 68 Trevor Robinson
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 76 Daniel Brunskill, 75 Andreas Knappe
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Levine Toilolo, 82 Joshua Perkins, 86 D.J. Tialavea, 85 Eric Saubert, 49 Darion Griswold
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Taylor Gabriel, 13 Devin Fuller, 15 Nick Williams, 16 Anthony Dable, 87 Deante Burton, 7 Josh Magee
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 4 Matt Simms, 4 Alek Torgersen
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 28 Terron Ward, 38 Brian Hill, 35 B.J. Daniels
FB 40 Derrick Coleman, 39 Tyler Renew
DE 99 Adrian Clayborn, 98 Takkarist McKinley, 96 Martin Ifedi
DT 92 Dontari Poe, 77 Ra’Shede Hageman, 92 Joe Vellano
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 91 Courtney Upshaw, 74 Taniela Tupou
DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 95 Jack Crawford, 90 Derrick Shelby, 93 Chris Odom
SLB 59 DeVondre Campbell, 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 50 Brooks Reed, Jack Lynn
LB 45 Deion Jones, 53 LaRoy Reynolds, 52 Josh Keyes
WLB 36 Kemal Ishmael, 42 Duke Riley, 56 Jermaine Grace, 55 J’Terius Jones
CB 23 Robert Alford, 29 C.J. Goodwin, 25 Akeem King, 39 Janor Jones, 38 Taylor Reynolds
NB 34 Brian Poole, 33 Blidi-Wreh-Wilson, 27 Damontae Kazee
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 32 Jalen Collins, 30 Deji Olatoye, 41 Quincy Mauger
S 37 Ricardo Allen, 20 Sharrod Neasman, 35 Marcelis Branch
S 22 Keanu Neal, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 48 Jordan Moore, 49 Deron Washington
K 3 Matt Bryant, 6 Mike Meyer
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 19 Andre Roberts, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Devin Fuller, 38 Brian Hill
PR 19 Andre Roberts, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Devin Fuller, 18 Taylor Gabriel
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC