The biggest change on the Atlanta Falcons defense in 2014 isn't going to be in the front seven. It's going to be at free safety, replacing the over 900 snaps that Thomas DeCoud played. The Falcons need to pick who their new starting free safety is going to be.
At least they have some competent options to choose from. Competent in the sense that they should be able to at least play the run and not look worse than DeCoud did in coverage in 2013. They would have to combine to be the worst free safety group in the league to do so.
If they do wind up being that poor safety combination, the Falcons will have a huge need to fill after the season. But for now, let's see what Dwight Lowery, Dezmen Southward, Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta can do as part of the new free safety corps.
Dwight Lowery: The Free Agent with an Injury History
The Falcons wanted to bring in a veteran presence to compete with the young guns at the position. The best one available who signed with the Falcons wound up being Dwight Lowery. He's a veteran who has missed 23 games over the past three seasons due to various injuries.
In 2013, a severe concussion caused him to miss 13 games. In 2012, he had an ankle injury that sidelined him for almost half of the season. And in 2011, shoulder and stinger injuries held him out for a few games.
Nonetheless, when he's healthy, Lowery could easily be the most reliable option for the Falcons in the secondary. Unfortunately, he hasn't been healthy for a full season since his rookie year. Atlanta shouldn't expect him to be the guy at free safety early on.
Unfortunately, that means they will have to rely on someone else with almost zero experience in the NFL. Even if Lowery is 100 percent healthy, the Falcons will have to make sure one of the inexperienced guys is ready to start in case Lowery can't make it through the whole season.
Dezmen Southward: Highest Ceiling on the Roster
Dezmen Southward was drafted a round too early. But since the team likes what he can do on the field and how well he projects, it makes sense as to why he would go so high in the draft. As a physical specimen, he’s easily one of the best in the entire draft.
|Height||Weight||40-Yard Dash||10-Yard Split|
|6'0-1/4"||211 lbs||4.38 sec||1.50 sec|
|Broad Jump||Vertical Jump||3-cone Drill||Short Shuttle|
|10'4"||42"||6.50 sec||4.37 sec|
As you can see, his overall athleticism and athletic numbers just completely pop off the screen. The issues with his game all look to be of a technical nature. His tackling could improve as well, but the Falcons are still getting a better safety there than what DeCoud was.
In coverage, that’s where the biggest questions lie. Southward has a ton of potential, but does he have the instincts to be a playmaker in coverage? Can he at least turn his head around and get a couple of interceptions every single year? These are questions that will need to be answered.
If Falcons defensive backs coaches Tim Lewis and Joe Danna feel comfortable with him as the starting free safety, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will have no choice but to insert the player with the highest ceiling there in Southward.
Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta: The Dark Horses
Normally, people expect high draft picks or free agents to win in a situation like Atlanta’s free safety battle. However, it wouldn’t be shocking to see either Zeke Motta or Kemal Ishmael win the battle for the starting job this season.
Both players are excellent tacklers and would be a huge upgrade in run support over what DeCoud provided in the 2012 and 2013 seasons there. It's in pass situations that the Falcons have little knowledge of what either guy can do.
|Drill||Zeke Motta||Jairus Byrd||Kemal Ishmael|
|Weight||213 lbs||207 lbs||201 lbs|
|40-Yard Dash||4.75 sec||4.68 sec||4.63 sec|
|10-Yard Split||1.62 sec||1.53 sec||1.53 sec|
|Short Shuttle||4.16 sec||4.10 sec||4.28 sec|
|3-cone Drill||6.72 sec||6.75 sec||6.75 sec|
Athletically, both Motta and Ishmael have the same kind of limited long speed that Jairus Byrd—now on the Saints—shows. They have good short-range speed and could do well if they had limited deep options in coverage like Cover 4, Cover 3 center field and Cover 2-style zones.
Nonetheless, these guys are ideally depth guys. While they both have good athletic profiles, the Falcons are in deep trouble if they are starting. Atlanta would be better off keeping these guys on the bench or only having them come in on dime situations in three-corner/three-safety split sets.
Motta and Ishmael are best as special teams players. Hopefully, they can show more than they have already as pros. Preseason will be crucial as one of these two players could wind up completely off the roster when it's finalized.
Southward Will Win the Job When Everything Is Said and Done
While everything points to Dwight Lowery winning if he's healthy, it doesn't seem likely that he's going to stay healthy since he is trending to miss more and more games every single season. That leaves the next best option—Dezmen Southward.
As a former cornerback and nickel corner, the new free safety fits in better as an all-around safety than as a pure center fielder—and that is what Atlanta truly needs. Nolan loves to have his secondary disguise its looks and even to blitz his safeties.
Who will win the FS job?
By having a safety who can do it all in Southward, Nolan could start running the defense he truly wants to run. Unless Southward takes too long to pick up the scheme, the Falcons should have a safety who can develop a raw skill set into what Nolan wants in the final line of defense.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro-day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.