Editor’s note: This is the second of a 10-part position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons’ roster heading into training camp.
The Falcons’ secondary is anxiously awaiting the full return of free safety Ricardo Allen and strong safety Keanu Neal.
“The safeties coming back… that’s a big part of it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “What Keke and Ricardo bring in their own unique way… we had some really good (offseason) practices and they’ll only get better when we (get) Rico and Keanu (back).”
Veterans are scheduled to check in to Flowery Branch on July 21, one day before the first training camp practice on July 22. Rookies are scheduled to report on July 18.
The Falcons will have eight practices open to the public, including one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and will play the Broncos in the Hall of Fame Game Aug. 1 in Canton, Ohio.
The hard-hitting Neal suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the season opener against the Eagles and missed the rest of the season. His physical presence on the defense was sorely missed.
Allen, who signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract extension over the 2018 offseason, was injured in overtime of the 43-37 loss to the Saints on Sept. 23. Allen, the unit’s signal-caller, suffered a torn left Achilles that was first announced as a calf injury.
Neal returned to practice in a limited fashion late in the organized team activities. Neal could fully participate by the start of training camp.
Allen is in the final stages of rehabbing his injury, which is normally a nine-month-to-a-year process for full recovery.
“Having Rico back is going to be big for us,” defensive passing game coordinator Jerome Henderson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You can’t replace what he is for this team. The way he communicates. The way he studies. The way he helps others. His ability to make things right on the field and his awareness is big for us.”
Others may have benefited from getting some offseason action with Allen out.
“We are giving them a chance to see who’s going to step up and kind of take that position as the backup free safety,” Henderson said. “Right now, it’s been a really competitive battle between those guys.”
Sharrod Neasman is the top backup free safety candidate.
“Neasman would be the only free safety that has any real playing time in this league,” Henderson said. “All of his was really last year. But he’s done a great job this offseason. All of those guys that are competing have done a really good job of communicating.”
Allen, while rehabbing, attended all of the position group and team meetings.
“The great thing for us is that he’s in the room coaching those guys,” Henderson said. “ ‘Here’s how I would have played that. Here’s what I think about that situation.’ That’s been big for us.”
The Falcons have been pleased with veteran safety J.J. Wilcox, the former Georgia Southern standout.
Wilcox was selected in the third round (80th overall) of the 2013 draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He played with the Colts and Jets last season.
Wilcox has played in 77 NFL games and made 39 starts.
He played for Dallas from 2013 to 2016. He was with Pittsburgh in 2017.
“He’s been awesome for us,” Henderson said. “He’s a guy who brings in some starting experience in this league. He’s a really good person first off. The type of person that you just like to be around.
“You like in the room. He has really good energy. He has really good presence on the field, that I know I like. He brings a toughness that I like as well.”
Safeties: Free safeties — 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman, 34 Chris Cooper, 35 Jason Thompson, 43 Parker Baldwin. Strong safeties — 22 Keanu Neal, 37 J.J. Wilcox, 40 Ryan Neal.
Who’s returning: The Falcons are counting on Neal and Allen returning from injury while Neasman, who played in 12 games last season, is back. Ryan Neal played in one game.
Who’s gone: Jordan Richards played in 15 games and made 12 starts last season. He was not re-signed and went to the Raiders. Damontae Kazee, who took over for Allen at free safety and had seven interceptions, is moving to nickel back.
Roster competitions: Wilcox may have locked up the backed up strong safety spot and could be vying for some big nickel playing time. Neasman must hold off challenges from Cooper, Thompson and Baldwin.
Position-by-position series: July 8: Special teams | July 9: Safeties | July 10: Cornerbacks | July 11: Linebackers | July 12: Defensive line | July 13: Quarterbacks |July 14: Offensive line | July 15: Wide receivers | July 16: Tight ends | July 17: Running backs
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