Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster after their offseason program.
There was a surprise player on Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s list of six players who can elevate their play in 2018.
Hard-hitting strong safety Keanu Neal, who went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season, was on that list. With Neal and free safety Ricardo Allen, the back end of the Falcons’ defense is strong.
In a late offseason move, the Falcons added versatile veteran safety Ron Parker. Promising second-year free safety Damontae Kazee, Marcelis Branch, Jason Hall and Secdrick Cooper are the other safeties on the roster as the Falcons are scheduled to report for training camp on July 26.
Quinn likes Neal’s ability to force fumbles and the physical prowess he provides the defense. However, he’d like to see Neal make some better decisions on when to lower the boom on players and slow down at times when he just needs a good quality tackle.
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Neal, who botched a near interception in the NFC divisional playoff game against the Eagles right before halftime, also was asked to work on his hands and to make plays on the ball.
“We had some interceptions that were taken away by penalty,” Quinn said. “We also had some interceptions that were just flat dropped.”
Neal appeared to mis-time his jump in the loss to the Eagles.
“A lot of it has to do with focus all the way through, extend your hands to go get it,” Quinn said.
Neal, who was second on the team with 113 tackles, concentrated on taking care of his body over the offseason with a plan for his smaller muscles.
“With me, one of the things was missed tackles,” Neal said. “I think my aggressive nature, just knowing when to make the efficient tackle, that’s one thing that they mentioned to me. Then also making plays on the ball.
“That’s also something that I’ve been working a lot on this offseason, catching and things like that. I’m excited for this year.”
Neal believes he’ll be up to making improvements in his game.
“I would say that it is going back to the basics, going back to the techniques,” Neal said. “That’s what we work on. Gathering and things like that. Going up to make the tackle, start to break down and shorten your stride and make the play. There are times for big hits, but there are times when you have to get him down.”
Neal believes that he’s ready for the new helmet-to-helmet contact rule and how it will be interpreted.
“We talk about Falcon-rolling, tackling behind the ball carrier, putting our head behind them instead of in front of him,” Neal said. “There are things that we are working out that are really going to counter-act that rule.”
The defense improved from 27th to eighth in scoring defense, 25th to ninth in total yards, 17th to ninth in rushing yards and 28th to 12th in passing yards last season.
The Falcons were down from 22 takeaways to 16 in 2017. Overall, the turnover margin was minus-2, which ranked 19th in the league after being a plus-11 and ranking fourth in 2016.
Neal believes the entire unit can improve.
“We can be great,” Neal said. “The sky is the limit for us. … I know what we can be. We are not finished. We are still growing. Still building on what we started.”
Allen, who was hoping for a long-term deal, signed his restricted free agent tender of $2.9 million.
“We have to keep finding things that we know we want to get better at as a team and as a group,” Allen said. “Keep building together and work on the things that we consider our weak spots or our off spots. Those are the things we have to focus on, but we have to keep building our strengths, too.”
Allen also has high aspirations for the defense.
“I don’t know what number on defense we were last year, but count the numbers in front of us to get to No. 1,” Allen said. “That’s where we want to go. We want to be the best to do it. That’s what always our end goal is. To focus and train and give you the best chance. ... I don’t think (anyone) in the world is training to be considered number two. Everybody is always shooting to be the best.”
Allen is still hoping for a long-term deal, but knows he could end up on free agency next offseason.
“I come out here and do my best for the team,” Allen said. “I put myself in a good situation and I want to keep going.”
The Falcons are excited about Kazee, a fifth-round pick from San Diego State in the 2017 draft, who shined on special teams last season.
“We will also try him some at nickel,” Quinn said. “He’s a tough competitor. We really felt for the first year, we’ll just put him at one spot. He found his way on teams. He is a tough competitor.
“He has that fearlessness about him and I really respect that.”
Part 1: Defensive Line
Part 2: Linebackers
Part 3: Cornerbacks
Coming Friday: Special teams
Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 18, Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Reggie Davis, 86 Lamar Jordan, 16 Taj Williams
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill
LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas
C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 J.C. Hassenauer
RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 62 Salesi Uhatafe
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray, 80 Troy Mangen, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Christian Blake, 19 Dontez Byrd, 7 Devin Gray
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett, 6 Kurt Benkert
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 41 Terrence Magee, 32 Justin Crawford, 35 Malik Williams
FB 40 Daniel Marx, 43 Luke McNitt, 30 Ricky Ortiz
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 96 Mackendy Cheridor
DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Garrison Smith,
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer, 99 Jon Cunningham
DE 44 Vic Beasley, 90 Derrick Shelby, 55 J’Terius Jones
WLB 42 Duke Riley, 54 Foyesade Oluokun
MLB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe, 53 Emmanuel Smith
SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 56 Anthony Winbush, 49 Richard Jarvis
CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 28 Justin Bethel, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden, 43 Chris Lammons
NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 42 Tyson Graham, 30 Joseph Putu
FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch, 41 Jason Hall
SS 22 Keanu Neal, Ron Parker, 35 Secdrick Cooper
K 3 Matt Bryant, 1 David Marvin
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall, 30 Ito Smith
PR 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher