For most NFL players, the first few years in the league is a tumultuous experience, one that lacks stability and is full of unexpected tuns. They can fall in the draft, get cut, grind it out on the practice squad, switch positions.
Ricardo Allen went through all of these challenges during his first two seasons in Atlanta. Looking back, it was probably for the best: After dropping to 147th overall in 2014, getting cut—on HBO's Hard Knocks, no less—and moving from cornerback to free safety, the 5-foot-9 DB established himself as a crucial member of Dan Quinn's defense.
Allen beat out his competition for the top FS spot and went on to start 14 games in 2015. His speed, tenacity and playbook acumen made him a steady presence for Atlanta's D, and on a few occasions, he came up big when it mattered most.
In Week 1, his first ever regular season game, Allen sealed a Falcons victory on Monday Night Football by picking off Sam Bradford late in the fourth quarter. That was his first of three interceptions in 2015—a team-high. He also added five pass deflections, 59 solo tackles and a sack.
Beyond the game-changing moments, Allen's work in the middle field was consistently solid. He earned a positive Pro Football Focus grade nine times this year and finished with a 3.3 overall mark. Only Desmond Trufant's coverage grade was higher on Atlanta's defense.
"He's grown a lot. He's always working," Trufant said of Allen. "He went from corner to free safety, and it looks like he has been playing there his whole life. He has a lot of big things ahead of him."
Perhaps the most impressive part of Allen's evolution is the way he responded to adversity. Spending a year on the practice squad gave him valuable perspective. Now, having proved himself, he appears destined for a lengthy, rewarding NFL career.
"I think that probably was the best thing that could have happened to me last year," he said of being cut. "When it happened, you're like, 'Why did this happen to me? I think I'm better than some people on this team. I know I can help somewhere on special teams.'"
"And then you realize it's bigger than you. It's bigger than you in that maybe you (have) some growing to do."