INDIANAPOLIS – The Falcons have a numbers problem, at least on paper.
The emergence of Damontae Kazee over the past two seasons gives Atlanta three starting-caliber safeties when everyone is healthy, and Keanu Neal appears to be right on track to getting back into the action for next season. Factoring Ricardo Allen into that mix, the Falcons have one extra player for the two safeties spots that football teams have traditionally utilized.
Perhaps that isn't a problem at all, though. In fact, the Falcons may be perfectly positioned to take advantage of a trend that has been developing at the college and NFL levels.
In the last decade the NBA has evolved to become a positionless sport in a lot of ways. Point guards like John Stockton and Steve Nash are no longer the prototype. Instead, freakish athletes like the 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo and the 6-foot-10 Kevin Durant have become primary ballhandlers, stressing defenses with every dribble of the basketball. Teams learned it was best to put the ball in the hands of their best players as often as possible, even if that player doesn't fit the traditional prototype of a certain position.
Football appears to be headed in a somewhat similar direction with running backs who run routes like wide receivers and linebackers who can run as fast as cornerbacks.
"You get athletic safeties out there, you can interchange them," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "We have to be versatile. We have to have numbers at corners and safeties, guys who can move. It's not just about the old in-the-box safety that can nut up on people. That person will be isolated at times when they're trying to cover a tight end or a running back. You have to be adept enough in coverage."
As football becomes a game increasingly played in space, which is different than the old "4 yards and a cloud of dust" mentality, teams have sought faster, more athletic defenders rather than the bigger, stronger and slower punishers of previous generations. This has become especially true with the safety and linebacker positions.
Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones, one of the league's best off-ball linebackers, is a primary example. At 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds, Jones was considered undersized by some draft pundits coming out of LSU. Since entering the NFL, Jones has 409 tackles, which is 10th-most among all linebackers despite missing 10 games during the 2018 season. His nine interceptions and four touchdowns are the most among NFL linebackers since 2016, and Jones' 32 pass defense are third-most in that time.
Simply, Jones' perceived weakness – his size – hasn't really turned out to be much a liability, while his athleticism has made him one of the best playmakers in coverage in the NFL.
The Falcons have tended to take this approach under coach Dan Quinn. Linebacker Foye Oluokun was a former safety at Yale and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds at his pro day workout in 2018 while measuring in at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. Not surprisingly, his coverage ability has helped him see the field and perform well early in his career.
Neal is also a player that represents the versatility that Quinn has looked for. Occupying a key role in the Cover 3 defense the Falcons employ, Neal, who is 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds, is not much different than Jones or Oluokun – a player with both linebacker and safety skill sets. Often playing down in the box, Neal is both an enforcer in the run game and a player the Falcons have liked to match up against tight ends.
Having many players with similar qualities allows for a certain malleability on defense, which is where Quinn believes the game is headed.
"You're seeing some bigger college players who are safeties that play the nickel position, they're good blitzers off the edge," Quinn said. "Sometimes you even see a linebacker in that spot. We're seeing some of the linebackers that are so fast that play out in space. I think you're right, the modern era of nickel defenses is about having some versatility, and when you want to play some man to man, how do you match up?"
If Neal is closer to the linebacker side of the hybrid spectrum then Kazee is on the opposite end, where the centerfielder free safeties reside. Atlanta attempted to use Kazee as its nickel corner during the first half of the 2019 season, but it became clear that his game didn't translate to that role in the way the team thought it would. After moving back to free safety, where his range, instincts and ball skills could flourish, he once again became a playmaker for the Falcons.
Allen is the middle ground between Neal and Kazee. Following Neal's season-ending injury and Kazee's switch back to free safety, Allen was tasked with occupying the box safety role in Atlanta's defense. Despite standing at just 5-foot-9 and weighing 186 pounds, Allen's football intelligence and understanding of opposing schemes allowed him to hold his own closer to the line of scrimmage. And his coverage ability gave the Falcons an ability to disguise their defense a bit more prior to the snap.
Nickel defenses are no longer the sub-package defense for NFL teams, they've become the norm. According to Sharp Football Stats, NFL offenses were in 11 personnel with three wide receivers on the field nearly 60 percent of the time during the 2019 season. This is forcing defenses to turn to their nickel packages far more frequently and increasing the value of players who can excel both in coverage and against the run.
If Neal is as equipped to play downhill against the run as he is to cover a tight end down the middle of the field, does it really matter that his position title is safety or linebacker? His assignment on one play could very well be Jones's on the next. It's increasingly become more important to have the best players on the field, not specific positions.
We're already seeing a new generation of college hybrid players who have been asked to handle a wide array of roles in an effort to give defenses some small edge by keeping quarterbacks guessing as to what might happen after the snap.
"I definitely can do it all," Georgia safety JR Reed said at the NFL combine. "I can play the nickel spot, the money spot on third down, free [safety] and the strong [safety]. You want me to line up to match and play corner, I can do it all. I'm a safety that can come down into the box, I'm a safety that has range, I'm a safety that can go down and lock up your best tight end."
If the NFL is following suit and position titles are becoming less important than the collective combination of skills on a team's defense, the Falcons are right on track.
Before heading into the 2020 NFL year, we are going to look back at the best images from players on the active roster. Take a look at the best of Ricardo Allen.