Kemal Ishmael to lead the Keanu Neal replacement committee

Strong safety Kemal Ishmael will be the primary replacement for Keanu Neal on the Falcons defense.

“Kemal Ishmael has been our backup strong safety. He’ll certainly be involved in a good bit of the packages,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Wednesday. “As we get into third downs and two-minute defense, we’ll probably have some more variety.”

Last season, when Neal went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Falcons ended up playing Jordan Richards, who was not re-signed, on first downs and brought in Sharrod Neasman, who’s the backup free safety, in passing situations.

Replacing Neal is complex because he did so much for the defense. It’s going to take at least a two-person committee and possibly three. The Falcons also called up strong safety Jamal Carter from the practice squad Monday.

“He’s a very good player,” Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said of Neal. “Very instinctive and reactive. Good blitzer. He covered. That’s always a challenge that teams face is trying to replace somebody that does a lot of things for you.

“He did a lot of different things for them. Communication, alignments, production and leadership. Those are a lot of things to replace. He is a good player.”

Ishmael was drafted as safety and was moved to linebacker in Quinn’ second season with the team. He’s been able to stick on the roster as a backup and a key special-teams player. He was moved back to safety when J.J. Wilcox suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp this year.

The sure-tackling Ishmael has played in 84 games and has made 20 starts.

“I’m ready,” Ishmael said.

Knowing the defense from playing linebacker and strong safety will help Ishmael.

“Definitely, but there are some changes,” Ishmael said. “There are some new wrinkles. This is always going to be a learning process. You just have to always be ready.”

Ishmael was a seventh-round pick in 2013 out of Central Florida, where he played with cornerback A.J. Bouye of Tucker, who’s now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ishmael has had to battle each year to keep his roster spot.

“Every year you have to have that mentality to come in here and do your best,” Ishmael said. “I do it for the guys. ... I’m real tight with the linebackers from my time in that room.”

Neasman played in three games last season and in 20 games over his career.

“I’m just ready to do my role, whatever my team asks me to do,” Neasman said. “We all feel for Keanu, he is a great teammate. A great guy. We just all are coming together and we’ll make it happen.”

The Falcons worked out veterans George Iloka and T.J. McDonald on Tuesday, but elected to give Carter, an undrafted player who played at Miami, a shot.

“First off, we liked him coming out of Miami,” Quinn said. “The strong safety working out of the box and playing physical.”

Carter played in 50 games at Miami and made 15 starts. He was undrafted, but signed a deal with the Broncos.

He played 34 defensive snaps against the Falcons in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game in August. He also played 16 snaps on special teams. He had on tackle on defense and one on special teams.

“As soon as I got in, I made like three or four tackles back to back,” Carter said.

When Carter was cut by the Broncos on Aug. 31, the Falcons signed him to their practice squad Sept. 2.

“We followed him through his time at Denver, and it was really in the (exhibition) season that we saw him play really physical,” Quinn said. “He was somebody that we thought we could develop in the position. So, after three weeks he’s certainly showed a lot of those traits with his speed and toughness.”

Carter was listed behind Ishmael on the team’s depth chart this week.

“He’ll certainly get his chances, too,” Quinn said.

The Falcons elected not go with Iloka or McDonald, who have been starters in the NFL.

Iloka, 29, played for the Bengals (2012-17) and the Vikings (2018). He’s played in 99 NFL games and made 79 starts. Last season, he played in all 16 games and made three starts for the Vikings.

McDonald, 28, played for the Rams (2013-16) and the Dolphins (2017-18). He’s played in 75 games, all starts.

“The two veterans did an excellent job,” Quinn said. “For them to have the careers that they’ve had and the tape that I was shown, I played against both of them, so I saw firsthand how good they are. What we saw is that sometimes you need your shot and you need your chance.”

Ishmael, Neasman and Carter are about to get their shot.


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