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With Dwight Lowery suffering a concussion during Friday Night Lights the Falcons are once again looking awfully thin at the FS position. Lowery has a history of concussions in the NFL and his timetable for return seems to be up in the air at the moment ( although the fact that he was diligently watching practice yesterday is hopefully a sign that he isn’t too far away from returning). However, if Lowery is out for an extended period of time who should the Falcons trust to fill in at FS?
Rookie Dez Southward was always going to struggle early on in camp even before he picked up a nagging knee injury that has held him out of practice recently. Even if Southward was 100% healthy my feelings are that he wouldn’t have been ready to contribute much if anything on defense this year. Southward needs a redshirt year to sit and learn the position before he is ready to step in and contribute.
Sean Baker spent some time on the Falcons practice squad last season so he should have a good understanding of the Falcons playbook. Baker is a big physical safety who is at his best defending the run. Baker has good frame and size for the safety position but he is limited physically to the point where if you put him in a man to man situation he is probably going to get burnt. Baker is best suited as a reserve SS and core special teamer, if he is asked to play significant snaps at FS things could get pretty ugly.
Kemal Ishmael was a little known player when the Falcons drafted him. Despite this Ishmael actually put together a fairy impressive resume while at UCF. Ishmael isn’t the biggest or the fastest safety in the world but he has good instincts and his tackling is extremely impressive. When Lowery went down injured I went back and re-watched some of Ishmael’s college tapes and to be honest I was pretty impressed.
Ishmael played a lot of roles in the UCF defense as he switched between the strong and free safety positions as well as lining up deep, in the slot as well as in the box. Like Baker, Ismael is at his best when he is attacking downhill where he can put his aggressive style and impressive tackling to good use. When the Falcons drafted Ishmael both Thomas Dimitroff and Coach Smith raved about his tackling abilities and for once I agree with them. Ishmael isn’t a William Moore style player who tries to take people’s heads off but instead Ishmael makes sure he makes the tackle. Ishmael isn’t just a tackling machine either, he does have the ability to make plays in coverage particularly when he’s playing a deep zone and he can see things develop in front of him. Don’t be mistaken Ishmael isn’t an Earl Thomas or Jarius Byrd style roaming safety playing center field but he has enough range that he can play a two deep zone if and when needed. Ishmael is a player who it’s really easy to root for, he plays in a way which will endear him to fans and his work ethic both on and off the field makes him a player worth rooting for. If Ishmael is asked to step up and play FS at any stage this season I trust that he would be a capable stand in, for comparisons sake he is a vastly superior player to Zeke Motta who the Falcons put in at FS late last season when Thomas DeCoud was injured.
Robert McClain is predominantly a slot corner but with all the recent injuries to safeties recently he is now apparently being cross trained along with Ricardo Allen at the free safety position. There have been some fans this season who have been calling for McClain to start at FS before we had even signed Lowery or drafted Southward. McClain could in theory actually be the best FS on the Falcons roster, McClain despite not being the biggest player is an extremely good tackler and isn’t afraid to come down in the box and mix it up. McClain also has enough quickness and athleticism that he can be asked to play man coverage against receivers, tight-ends and running backs. To be honest the only thing that puts me off having McClain at FS is that it probably means Josh Wilson would be the slot corner and this is something that I really don’t think is a good idea. If McClain picks up the position during camp and Lowery doesn’t recover from his concussion I think McClain is probably the best option for the Falcons simply because he is so well rounded.
The other player who is being cross trained at the FS position is Ricardo Allen who the Falcons drafted this year. Allen is another player who I have a personal soft spot for. He’s not the tallest or the quickest player out there but Allen is an out and out ball player, he puts his body on the line every snap and plays the game the way it should be played. If Allen was actually a bit taller and stronger he would be a perfect FS prospect. Despite his small stature Allen is a feisty player who never shy’s away from contact. Allen also plays the ball extremely aggressively in the air and anytime he is able to keep his eyes on the QB he is more than likely going to make a play on the ball. I think Allen could actually be a good FS in the league but I would be surprised if he was handed the starting role simply because he is a rookie. Even if Allen doesn’t start at FS this year it will be interesting where the Falcons envisage his future lies and it could be a thing to keep an eye on in the future.
Tyrell Johnson is the last player who will probably be in contention for the starting FS spot. The Falcons made room for Johnson by cutting FB convertee Roosevelt Nix. I cannot have been the only person who laughed when the Johnson signing was announced, the safety market is grim at the moment but Tyrell Johnson, really? Johnson was a second round draft pick of the Vikings in 2008 but he has been out of the league for a year since he didn’t make the Lions roster last season. In all honesty Johnson is probably just a camp body who gets cut at some point before the season.
If Dwight Lowery recovers from his concussion and can start the season at FS for the Falcons then we needn’t worry, however, if Lowery’s concussion history prevents him from playing (perhaps all season) then the Falcons have a decision to make with regard as to who they start. As I have said above, personally the best option at FS would be Robert McClain who I think would actually be a pretty good safety in the league. For the record if Lowery is lost for the season I think the Falcons will make a move for a safety either via trade or pick up another team’s camp cut. The FS position was always going to be a problem area for the Falcons when they didn’t sign a high profile FA or use a high draft pick to address the need, hopefully one of the players mentioned above steps up in camp and shows that even if Lowery does go down the Falcons won’t be completely screwed at the FS position.