Atlanta Falcons: Two questionable moves already for GM Terry Fontenot

Aug 15, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (22) shown on the sideline during the game against the New York Jets during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 15, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (22) shown on the sideline during the game against the New York Jets during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

Every general manager in the NFL makes a questionable decision at some point, it seems like new Atlanta Falcons general manager, Terry Fontenot, has made his first two.

Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee have shown great ability during their tenure as Atlanta Falcons, so why would Fontenot allow them to leave for such little?

The Dallas Cowboys were able to steal away the two starting-caliber safeties for about 6 million dollars combined. Keanu Neal essentially signed a one-year, $5 million, and Damontae Kazee signed a one-year $1 million deal.

When Keanu Neal was selected in the 2016 NFL draft, fans were very skeptical of the pick, and it was pretty obvious that the selection was Dan Quinn’s idea. Keanu came out of Florida as a top-three safety in the draft class, and Quinn had previously worked as a coach at Florida.

Neal is also the type of player Quinn likes, a hard-hitting enforcer.

Kazee was taken in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft out of San Diego State. Not many people expected him to turn into the type of player he did as he was able to tie for the league lead in interceptions as he did in 2018.

Both of these players, however, did deal with their fair share of injuries.

Keanu’s two major injuries were freak injuries and ones that probably won’t plague him for his whole career as something like a soft tissue injury might. While he did miss one game because of a small hamstring issue this past season, he showed that he has the ability to still play most, if not all the games in a year.

This past year was Kazee’s first year that he missed a game. He tore his Achilles during the season. This is an injury that players, nowadays, routinely come back from, just as Keanu Neal was able to do. It is not something that should have worried any of the Atlanta Falcons staff.

The Atlanta Falcons decision to let Neal and Kazee walk was questionable, at best.

It is just hard to imagine that not offering Neal or Kazee a contract was a smart idea. Fontenot instead decided to bring in veteran safety, Erik Harris for about the same amount of money Kazee went to the Cowboys for.

Erik Harris’s best year, according to Pro Football Reference, came in 2019 with the Raiders.

He recorded three interceptions, 74 tackles, and eight passes defended. Looking at Kazee’s best seasons which came in 2018 and 2019, he had seven interceptions and three interceptions, 82 and 74 tackles, and 10 and three passes defended.

Keanu Neal obviously doesn’t have the interception numbers because that hasn’t really been his game, but in his rookie year, he had eight passes defended, and the year following that he had 6. Looking at his tackle numbers, he has had three seasons with over 100 tackles.

Comparing these three players overall grade on Pro Football Focus, Erik Harris’s best season he earned a 73.5 grade, Kazee’s best came in at 77.9, and Keanu had two seasons that bested Erik Harris with grades of 78.1, and 75.9.

Looking at these stats and grades, it is fair to assume that Erik Harris can be considered the inferior of the three players. That makes it even harder to swallow the pill that Fontenot allowed Kazee, and Neal to leave for such little money.

Certainly, at the least, the Atlanta Falcons could have afforded to bring back Damontae Kazee, but it seemed like they were not going to ever consider that.

This brings us to the other argument, scheme fit. This is probably more of an argument with Keanu Neal than it is Damontae Kazee. There is no question that Neal was Dan Quinn’s guy. However, Dean Pees could have certainly found a way to fit Neal into the defense, whether that be as a coverage linebacker like it seems the Cowboys will be using him as or more of a downhill safety.

There is certainly is a small argument that Neal wouldn’t have been a perfect fit, but when Pees was in Tennessee, he had Kenny Vaccaro starting at safety. Vaccaro played great for him, and he is essentially a worse version of Neal.

To add to that, Keanu Neal and Erik Harris have both played five seasons, and Neal has had the better coverage grade in three of those five seasons.

There is not much of an argument for Kazee not fitting the scheme. Kazee best fits into a defense that allows him to sit back and attack the ball. He led the league in interceptions for a reason during the 2018 season. Pees likes to run a deep safety on most of his plays, Kazee would fit right into that.

It is fair to say that both Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee have more upside, and have consistently played better than Erik Harris has. It is hard to imagine how Fontenot thought bringing in Harris is worth the same price as Kazee presumably would have been.

Even with the signing of Erik Harris, the Falcons still have a big hole at the safety position. They currently have Erik Harris, Jaylinn Hawkins, and T.J. Green under contract for the upcoming season.

Jaylinn Hawkins was able to show a little potential before his injury in his rookie season, and T.J. Green should not be more than a depth player. They need at least one more starting quality safety.

The Atlanta Falcons are in a tough situation since they let Kazee and Neal leave for the Dallas Cowboys.

It is easy to sit back and say the Atlanta Falcons made a huge mistake by letting Keanu Neal, and Damontae Kazee leaves for such little. No one except for Terry Fontenot and the rest of the staff knows what the plan is, and they most certainly have one.

Perhaps the Falcons have their sights set on some draft prospects or another free agent. They must make a move in the free-agent market, or during the draft. If they don’t, their defense could be in for a long year.

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