Editor's note: This is No. 9 in a series detailing each position group on the Falcons' 90-man roster.
FALCONS ROSTER PREVIEWS
The Falcons' safety unit is as deep and diverse as it has been in quite some time. Injuries in recent years have allowed a number of players on the roster to receive playing time, which has helped clarify roles and improved the quality of depth. How to maximize that various skill sets at the safety position will certainly be a challenge for defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, but it's a good problem to have.
2019 returning production
|Player||Games started||Tackles||Passes defended||Interceptions||Forced fumbles||PFF grade|
Here are three things to know about the Falcons' safeties heading into 2020:
1. What is the status of Keanu Neal?
After emerging as one of the best young strong safeties in the NFL during his first two seasons with the Falcons, Neal has suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries. It's hard to imagine anyone not rooting for a full recovery from Neal in 2020, but where does he stand in his rehab from the Achilles injury he sustained in Week 3 last year?
By all accounts, he's doing very well.
"Man, by God's grace, I feel awesome," Neal recently told "Good Morning Football." "I feel like myself again, and I'm grateful for that. These past couple of years have been tough, but I try not to look at the negatives; I try to think positively about that."
Atlanta's defense has missed Neal's presence as an enforcer down in the box. His tackling ability and old-school physicality set a certain tone that has been missing the past two seasons.
2. A bit of a numbers problem
If Neal can stay healthy for the majority of the 2020 season, the Falcons will have three starting-caliber safeties on the roster. Damontae Kazee has emerged as a great centerfielder and ballhawk in Atlanta's Cover 3 scheme, and Ricardo Allen is a versatile leader on the back end of the defense. Kazee has proven that he's best suited to play safety instead of slot corner, but Neal and Allen formed a good starting tandem in 2016 and 2017.
It's possible that Neal begins to operate more in a de-facto linebacker role closer to the line of scrimmage, which would allow Allen to play strong safety and Kazee to play free safety. Ultimately, it's important to get the best 11 players out on the field, and it will be interesting to see how the Falcons approach the safety position.
3. How does Jaylinn Hawkins factor into the mix?
Given Neal's injury history, the Falcons decided to add even more depth at safety by selecting Jaylinn Hawkins in the fourth round. Hawkins had 10 interceptions during his final three seasons at Cal, but he plays with the same type of physical nature that the Falcons value in Neal. The 5-foot-9, 186-pound Allen didn't have the size to really hold up in the box safety role after Neal's injury last year, but Hawkins, who is 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, would be better fitted to do that job.
In his first year, Hawkins will likely begin as an understudy to Neal and a core part of the special teams units. Should anything again happen to Neal, however, the Falcons now have a player better suited to handle the strong safety role in his absence. Hawkins also brings more play-making ability to the table, and turnovers are going to be a major emphasis for the defense this year.