FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Few people ever look as happy doing anything as Ricardo Allen does playing football.
The Falcons safety is back on the field after missing nearly all of the 2018 season with a torn Achilles, and Allen's energy in the secondary is palpable. Atlanta is being cautious in managing Allen's reps during practice, but after spending so much time off the field, it's clear he's really enjoying being back on it.
Allen is one of the smartest players on the Falcons' roster, and it's his football intellect that makes him such a valuable member of the team. He may not hit as hard as Keanu Neal or close space as quickly as Deion Jones, but Allen's ability to communicate with his teammates and put them in position to succeed is every bit as important.
While physically unable to play football last season, Allen didn't take things easy. He turned his attention to sharpening his greatest weapon, his mind. Specifically, he dove headfirst into studying offenses. Allen seeks to view the game in the same way an offensive player might in hopes of better defending them.
"I always understood like a gist of what the offense was trying to target against us, but now I've taken it so deep as even studying with the quarterbacks on what his reads are," Allen said.
During the 2018 season, Allen spent a portion of his time in the quarterback group's position meetings. As the deep defender in the Falcons' defense, Allen has the ability to survey the entire field from a great vantage point. By learning how to look at the field in the same way as a quarterback Allen can better anticipate throws and decisions.
Allen provided an example of how valuable that studying could be during Sunday's Red-White scrimmage. He read the open part of the field as quarterback Matt Ryan did and cleanly jumped the route for an easy interception.
It seems Ryan's own tutoring came back to bite him.
Coach Dan Quinn is taking over the defense for the Falcons, and he surely has an acute sense of what Allen brings to the table. But even knowing how studious his safety is, Quinn was still thrown off guard when Allen asked him to sit in with the quarterbacks.
"It was definitely unusual," Quinn said. "… I don't think I've had that before. I think it kind of goes to his quest, his search for always trying to improve. So, he wanted to have a better feeling of what the quarterbacks are looking at."
Allen explained that the subjects he discussed with the Falcons quarterbacks went as deep as specific reads for the quarterback and the corresponding checks for the wide receivers.
Now entering his sixth year with the Falcons, Allen will be a crucial member of a secondary in transition with Isaiah Oliver slotting into a starting role at cornerback and Damontae Kazee taking over for Brian Poole at the nickel spot. Allen has been a starter since Quinn's arrival in 2015, and he's recorded 229 tackles, 13 pass defenses and seven interceptions in that time.
The role Allen occupies can't be fully told by stats, however. It's impossible to quantify Allen's reliability as an open-field tackler, his impact as a teach or his thirst to understand the game of football at a very high level.
Atlanta undoubtedly missed Allen's presence on the field last season, but he turned his misfortune into an opportunity to get better in a way that could truly have an impact for the Falcons. When he's back on the field in 2019, Falcons fans may see the best version of Allen yet.
"I'm trying to figure out the same thing that offensive coordinators are trying to train their quarterbacks to do," Allen said. "If I can get a jump on that or I can tell the players around me, there's going to be much more tips, much more picks. That's how you play good football."