The Free Safety Debate


Should the Atlanta Falcons select a free safety early in the draft to compete with Ricardo Allen in 2017?


Ricardo Allen is a good player.  Pro Football Focus ranks him as the 23rd best safety in the NFL, and the 12th best against the pass.  But don’t just take that at face value.  Look at what happened when Atlanta’s defensive front started generating more pressure in the playoffs. An arguably top 3rd safety in the league (with more room to improve) is hard to replace, especially at Allen’s price.  According to Spotrac, Rico made $525,000 this past season.  As an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, he won’t make much more in 2017.


If the above is true, it doesn’t seem to make very much sense to take a FS in the first three rounds, at least at first glance.  And to be fair, much of the desire to see Allen replaced is due to him being unfairly compared to Earl Thomas.  When Dan Quinn brought the Seattle defensive scheme to Atlanta, people instantly wondered who would play the single-high role.  Who would be the Falcons’ Earl Thomas?  The real answer is probably, “No one.” Thomas is a special talent and a rare find.  Just because Rico is not Earl Thomas, does not mean that he should be replaced.  


Let’s dig a little deeper, though.  A key phrase that has been heard often coming from Falcons’ General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has been “sustainable success.”  This involves balancing short term needs without sacrificing the ability to contend in the future.  The Falcons want to be contenders not just next season, but the next, and the next, and the next…


Thinking short term, then, a good question to ask is, “Can the Falcons get better at the position next year.”  As already stated, it’s not always so easy to replace a quality starter.  So, it’s not automatic, even with a first round pick.  Allen’s familiarity and experience in the defense gives him a heads up over any player in the draft, even if the player has better physical traits.


As is, though, Ricardo Allen has no legitimate threat to his starting spot on the roster. That’s bad.  Very bad.  Although he is a self-starter with great work ethic and doesn’t necessarily need competition as a motivational factor, what happens if he gets injured? Lack of any depth here makes adding a free safety to the roster an imperative to insure against injury.


Then there’s the future to consider.  It’s likely that Ricardo becomes a Restricted Free Agent after next season.  It’s also likely Falcons will tender him and be able to keep him at a relative bargain.  But it’s also very possible that if he improves or keeps up a consistent level of play, he will be in for a nice payday as an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) in two years.  However, some other notable Falcon UFAs in 2019 include Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett, and Tevin Coleman, and the next year Deion Jones, DeVondre Campbell, and Vic Beasley all could hit the market.  Choices are going to have to be made in who to pay, and who not to pay.  


If Atlanta’s staff feels there is a player who can compete, provide depth, has value on special teams, and could eventually start, it would be wise not to pass.  This safety class is loaded with talent.  The team-building process involves drafting for value, and there will be plenty of it after Round 1.  The only player that will likely be considered at the end of the first round is former Washington’s Budda Baker, and the coaches would have to feel like he would be big upgrade right away to neglect the EDGE talent and interior lines.


Some other names to keep a close eye on in the draft process: Marcus Williams, Utah; Marcus Maye, Florida; Justin Evans, Texas A&M.  Sleeper: Lorenzo Jerome, St. Francis.  The former Red Flash safety is one of my favorites in this class.  He had a tremendous showing at both the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and the Senior Bowl, and will become a more well-known name after the Combine.  Jerome seems to have all the traits Dan Quinn looks for in a FS and he offers immediate special teams value.


Top Image Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images via AJC