With both starting safeties trying to recover from major surgeries, the Falcons wanted to make sure they had quality backups.
With that in mind, they signed veterans J.J. Wilcox, Chris Cooper and recently added Jason Thompson and undrafted rookie Parker Baldwin. They join Sharrod Neasman and Ryan Neal, who returned from last season.
While strong safety Keanu Neal returned to practice Thursday, free safety Ricardo Allen is still recovering from his Achilles surgery.
Heading into the mandatory minicamp Tuesday, Wilcox is the clear No. 2 at strong safety, while the Falcons are sorting through the backup free safety candidates.
Wilcox, a native of Cairo, who played at Georgia Southern, was drafted in the third round (80th overall) of the 2013 draft by Dallas.
“J.J. has really played the strong safety with Keanu out,” defensive passing-game coordinator Jerome Henderson said. “He’s been awesome for us.”
Wilcox played with the Cowboys from 2013-16.
Wilcox, who’s listed at 6-foot and 212 pounds, has played for the Steelers (2017), Jets (2018) and Colts (2018). He’s played in 77 games and made 39 starts.
“He’s a guy who brings in some starting experience in this league,” Henderson said. “He’s a really good person, first off. The type of person that you just like to be around. He has really good energy. … He brings a toughness that I like as well.”
After Neal went down last season, the Falcons struggled to replace him. Jordan Richards, who was acquired in a trade with New England, received most of the strong safety snaps.
After the season, the Falcons did not re-sign him.
Damontae Kazee, who replaced Allen, is moving to nickel back. So, there is an opening at the No. 2 free safety position.
“We’ve rotated at that position this offseason with Rico out,” Henderson said. “We’ve rolled some guys through just trying to see and giving everybody kind of equal reps at that position. 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. Right now, it’s been a really competitive battle between those guys.”
Neasman has the most experience and earned his way onto the field last season as Richards struggled.
“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.”
Cooper has spent some time with the first-team defense, but isn’t the leader to back up Allen.
“All of those guys that are competing have done a really good job of communicating,” Henderson said.
The Falcons hope that Allen will be ready for training camp in July.
“Having Rico back is going to be big for us,” Henderson said. “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.”
While rehabbing, Allen has been helping in the meeting room.
“Right now a lot of guys are getting quality reps with him out,” Henderson said. “The great thing for us is that he’s in the room coaching those guys. Here’s how I would have played that. Here’s what I think about that situation. That’s been big for us.”
Wilcox, who was excused from the open OTA on Thursday for personal reasons, will get some extra attention along with the rest of the newcomers to the Falcons.
“We’ll take an extended look at some of the newest players after they’ve been through some of the package now we’ll select a few things for them to emphasize over the weekend to study,” coach Dan Quinn said. “Then they’ll get ready for (minicamp).”
The focus on the new players is to help them get ready for training camp and to improve the team’s overall depth.
“We’ll have some real specific examples,” Quinn said. “Takes some looks at some players in some different spots. It’s always a good time to get one last focus on each player so to speak before we go onto break.
“Then we’ll do a big evaluation on each of the new guys, here’s where you’re at right now. We’re going to try to push forward with those guys.
FALCONS DEPTH CHART AT SAFETY
Free safety -- 37 Ricardo Allen, 34 Chris Cooper, 41 Sharrod Neasman, 35 Jason Thompson, 43 Parker Baldwin.
Strong safety -- 22 Keanu Neal, 37 J.J. Wilcox, 40 Ryan Neal.
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