Falcons have talent, but no sure things at safety

Neasman, Richards are battling for jobs

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

There has been an excess of moving parts on the Falcons’ defense this season, yet a fan would be imprudent to assume what will happen next season if long-lost safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen return whole from their season-ending injuries.

Their replacements, Demontae Kazee, Sherrod Neasman and Jordan Richards, are no locks to go away.

Kazee is not going anywhere. He ranks tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions, second on the Falcons in tackles, with 77 (behind linebacker De’Vondre Campbell’s 85), third in pass breakups with nine and has a forced fumble.

The second-year pro is around the ball frequently.

Yet you might be surprised to know how well Neasman, who had a career-high and team-leading 11 tackles in Sunday’s win at Carolina, and Richards have been in 2018 while coming from vastly different backgrounds.

After slow starts when pressed into greater action, Neasman has 41 tackles and three pass breakups, which is a lot more than the four tackles he had in his first two seasons with the Falcons, and Richards has 38 tackles, as they have basically split the strong safety position for the past two months based largely upon game situations.

They both have put up career-high numbers, so will they be in the Falcons’ future?

Richards will be an unrestricted free agent next season. Neasman is under contract one more year.

“We’ll certainly consider that at safety. That’s going to be a big discussion for us in terms of the backup safety to Keanu, but in both examples the special-teams factor is probably the biggest piece of that, and both of them have done a good job,” coach Dan Quinn said.

Richards was acquired before the season began, even before injuries to Neal and Allen, in a trade with the Patriots that sent a conditional seventh-round pick to New England in 2020.

He didn’t do much early, but has caught on and started 11 games in Neal’s spot.

“Do I feel like I have a better grasp of it now? Yes ... I’ve just tried to pride myself on being able to play whenever asked and wherever asked, different packages, different personnel groupings,” he said. “I just want to be on the field to help the team.”

He’s kind of a bull. Neasman, who goes 6-feet, 198 or thereabouts, is more gazelle.

“We feature Jordan more in the base package, and we feature ‘Neas’ in the nickel package, not solely, but that’s a good part of where they’re at and what they do,” Quinn said. “Skill set-wise, Jordan’s a little bigger, a little stronger, and that’s why we use him in the base stuff. Where ‘Neas’ is at, we try to keep him in the coverage side of things when we can.

Neasman’s path has been spent largely in the NFL’s vapors.

He wasn’t drafted, but after the Falcons signed him in ’16, he ramped up from the practice squad and played in three games as a rookie and registered three tackles on special teams.

When the Falcons didn’t tender him a contract in the past offseason after he played in 11 games and registered one tackle, he signed with the Saints.

He was cut by New Orleans shortly before this season, and with all the Falcons’ injuries, he re-signed with his original team.

Neasman didn’t do much early, either, but he’s racked up 26 tackles over the past four games as the coaching staff has built a plan to alternate him and Richards at strong safety.

There’s nothing like really playing the game.

“Not being gone for long, it didn’t take long to pick back up on it and get familiar with the moving pieces of the defense and get back into it,” he said. “I think I’m a lot more comfortable now than I was ...

“You can get reps in practice, but if you’re not getting game-time reps and actually going through it when it’s live, it makes a world of difference, and I think that experience has elevated my game.”

Make no mistake, if Neal recovers on schedule from his torn ACL and Allen heals completely from his ruptured Achilles tendon, they’re starters next season. As Quinn said when asked about that, “Yes.”

But you’ve got to have backups, as this Falcons season has shown, and while Quinn continues to say that he sees Kazee – a college cornerback -- as a free safety or nickel back in the future, Neasman and Richards may be in the team’s plans as well.

It’s important than Quinn values their value as special-teams players, which both continue to play frequently.

“I’ve been especially impressed by Neasman for a guy who’s been here and left ... the attitude that he came back with wanting to try and help,” Quinn said. “... He’s somebody that I’ve been pulling for because he’s done a good job with his opportunities.”

They’re both interested in returning as well.

“I love playing ball, and if that opportunity presents itself, I’ve loved my time here, and I appreciate all the hard work that this team has put in, and the time that the coaches have put towards me,” Richards said ahead of becoming a free agent.

Neasman said he’s not bitter about not being offered a contract by the Falcons last spring.

“No. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I had a few visits (with other teams) and they pulled the trigger,” he said. “I leave emotion out of it. I realize it’s a business, and I came back in with the same attitude: come in and compete and work hard, and this year the opportunity presented itself.”