Editor's note:This story is a part of the Falcons Breakdown series, which evaluates each position group and how it will it look for next season.
The Falcons secondary is laden with first-year and second-year players, some who have quickly blossomed into stars like A.J. Terrell, and others who have shown promise like Jaylinn Hawkins, Richie Grant, Darren Hall, and Avery Williams.
Adjusting to the NFL is not easy, no matter how talented a player is, and having veterans to lean on for advice is often helpful. Kyle Pitts has mentioned regularly how valuable Lee Smith has been in his transition to the league and understanding how to be a professional.
- Falcons Breakdown: QBs, RBs, WRs, TEs, OL, DL, OLB, ILB, CB
- Rookie Review: Kyle Pitts, Richie Grant, Jalen Mayfield, Darren Hall
- Falcons 2021 season of awards
For the secondary, their figurative Lee Smith have been Duron Harmon and Erik Harris. Harmon, who wrapped up his ninth NFL season, and Harris, who finished his fifth, have helped the young group's transition to the league much more seamless.
But Harmon and Harris are unrestricted free agents this off-season. Will the Falcons decide that their young players are prepared to be full-time starters or keep the veterans around?
Let's get into that question and more in today's Falcons Breakdown.
Primary 2021 production:
Duron Harmon: 18 games | two interceptions | five pass breakups | 67 tackles | two tackles for loss | No sacks | 69 percent of targets caught | overall defensive PFF grade 59.1
Erik Harris: 14 games | No interceptions | six pass breakups | 60 tackles | three tackles for loss | 0.5 sacks | 70 percent of targets caught | overall defensive PFF grade 59.7
Jaylinn Hawkins: 18 games | two interceptions | one pass break up | 19 tackles | one tackle for loss | No sacks | 70 percent of targets caught overall | defensive PFF grade 58.7
Richie Grant: 16 games | 0 interceptions | two pass deflections | 28 tackles | Two tackles for loss | No sacks | 79.2 percent of targets caught | overall defensive PFF grade 48.8
Who stays: Richie Grant, Jaylinn Hawkins,
The Falcons invested a second-round pick in Grant in last year's draft and a fourth in Hawkins in 2019. With both having a year in Dean Pees' challenging defensive scheme, they should be prepared to take the reins if the Falcons decide to start Grant and Hawkins.
Chopping Block: Duron Harmon, Erik Harris
Harmon and Harris were solid in the secondary for the Falcons this season. Still, with draft investments made in the players behind them, it would make sense for the Falcons to see what they have in their Hawkins and Grant before bringing either back unless they are team-friendly deals.
Biggest question: Will Richie Grant remain at nickel or safety?
After a stellar senior season at the University of Central Florida, where Grant was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (given to the top defensive back in College Football), Grant quickly climbed draft boards. He was also lauded because of his versatility. At UCF, Grant mainly played free safety but thrived playing nickel and box safety.
In his rookie season, Dean Pees put that versatility to the test. Grant, who is still listed as a safety on the Falcons roster, mainly played nickel cornerback this season. After Isaiah Oliver's season-ending knee injury in week four, there was a proverbial revolving door at that position. Grant and cornerback Darren Hall spent the most time in the slot, both playing 192 snaps in 2021 inside, while Hall also played 50 at safety.
Pees has mentioned that Grant is still a safety, but also that "he is primarily a nickel" earlier this year. The biggest question for the safety group in 2022 will be how Pees decides to use the Falcons' 2021 second-round pick.
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
Break down the hottest topics surrounding the Atlanta Falcons and how they can impact the team's success with Atlanta Falcons Insiders Scott Bair, Tori McElhaney and Kris Rhim. Like and subscribe to join us for the lively debate on Falcons Final Whistle.
Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.