With the NFL draft and free agency looming, the Falcons roster will look completely different in 2021 than it did last year due to the league’s loss of revenue and Terry Fontenot’s first offseason as the team’s general manager. The most obvious positions that will look different are safety, edge, and running back. Fontenot recently released veteran safety Ricardo Allen, who joins Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee hitting free agency, makes Jaylinn Hawkins the only player at the position under contract. With Todd Gurley and Brian Hill hitting free agency, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison are the only rostered running backs. Dante Fowler is currently playing on an overpaid contract and could find himself traded or released this offseason, which would make the edge position the barest.
In this, we will explore overhauling the safety position through free agency and the draft this offseason. If you missed any previous editions, you can find those here:
If you noticed in the EDGE overhaul piece, Tyus Bowser and Romeo Okwara weren’t the high-end free agents of their position. Similarly, Marcus Maye and Duron Harmon will provide great value for whichever team signs them. Maye is among a deep group of safeties available on the open market — Marcus Williams, Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, and John Johnson III — possibly driving down his value. It is relative, Maye isn’t going to be cheap, but in any other year, Maye might be the type of free agent who ends up getting overpaid. I’d be much happy under-paying for someone like him than giving up an arm and a leg for Simmons or Harris — just the more cost-effective option.
Maye does everything a safety could be asked to do well, just nothing exceptional — perfect for Dean Pees’ defense. Maye will give you quality play as a free safety in the deep middle, sitting in the intermediate, or deep half safety; including lining up for at least 400 snaps at free safety, 200 snaps in the box, and 125 snaps at slot corner in each of the last two seasons — according to PFF. The former Florida Gator is big and physical enough to play in the box — a solid run defender — or blitz while also having the range and cover chops to play deep or man up on athletic tight ends.
Duron Harmon had a down year in Detroit this year after being traded by the Patriots, but I’d attribute his abnormal level of play to the Lions’ horrific defense. He was one of the best players on an otherwise poor defense in Detroit. It is rare for a free safety to be as good as Harmon is against the run — a very cerebral player. He does a great job filling gaps, possesses quick and accurate diagnostic skills when lined up in the box. The two, Harmon and Maye, could essentially be interchangeable pieces for Dean Pees. Other low cost options like Malik Hooker and Jaquiski Tartt should be appealing as well, although not as versatile.
I’m just going to go out and say Richie Grant is going to be the best safety in this class, and in this scenario, he’ll be drafted after Andre Cisco — who could fall to the Falcons at #36 but would likely require trading up from #36 or down from #4. Grant could fall to the Falcons in the third round but both are being extremely undervalued among analysts.
Cisco is an aggressive, ball-hawking safety with outstanding closing speed. His ability to read and react in this class is second to none — his high football IQ enables his click and close ability. Cisco has a knack for finding the ball, recording more interceptions (13) than anyone in this class — second is Richie Grant (10). The former Syracuse Orangeman is outstanding in man-to-man coverage too. He possesses outstanding footwork and can run stride for stride with wide receivers. The playmaking safety has the versatility to play near the line of scrimmage as a dime-linebacker, the coverage skills to be a team’s nickel cornerback, but thrives playing deep.
Richie Grant possesses a similar sideline-to-sideline range with explosive acceleration, which allows him to take tight ends and running backs in man coverage, not just to cover ground as a single-high or split-zone safety. As I mentioned before, Grant has incredible ball skills — these two might be the best in the draft when it comes to sniffing out the ball — but packs a punch as a run-defender. He’s likely a free safety at the next level, but with that said, he can comfortably work in the slot. He can even play in the box when needed due to his efforts in run defense and physical nature.
Basically, two more interchangeable pieces with Harmon and Maye. Both Cisco and Grant are ultra-aggressive safeties, which is why their ball production is off the charts. However, NFL teams will take advantage of that. Both tend to overrun plays and occasionally take poor angles against the run, but both have the athleticism to make up for that and bad reads. Terry Fontenot could grab four safeties for Dean Pees to use at all times. During the 2018 season, the Titans dialed up a nickel personnel package on 73% of defensive snaps — ninth-most in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. That isn’t going to be the exact the formula for his defense in Atlanta, as I’m sure he will adjust his scheme to the personnel afforded to him.