Falcons' DC: Free safety Ricardo Allen 'playing out of his mind'

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- New Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, the secondary coach last season, gave free safety Ricardo Allen a ringing endorsement heading into the 2017 season.

Allen, a former fifth-round pick as a cornerback who once was cut, has settled into a leadership role while adjusting to a new position.

"Ricardo is playing out of his mind, and he's not going to change that," Manuel said. "That's the cool part."

Allen's contribution was often overlooked last season because he didn't make the big splash plays on a regular basis. He admitted a need to create more turnovers moving forward, although he has two postseason interceptions following two interceptions during the 2016 regular season.

But Allen's value extends beyond statistics. His ability to communicate is key as the back line of defense, and Allen knows the scheme probably better than anyone. He is expected to "erase" the chance for big plays, and is not called upon to cover often, although that could change. Not to mention Allen hosted his teammates for film sessions at his own home, another sign of his leadership qualities.

Allen wants to better from sideline to sideline and make more plays on the ball.

The Falcons drafted ballhawking defensive back Damontae Kazee in the fifth round with intentions of giving him a look at free safety and nickelback. Coach Dan Quinn also said primary nickelback Brian Poole could get an audition at free safety. But that wasn't an indictment of Allen's play, as Manuel explained.

"I think you're going to see some big things this year," Manuel said of Allen. "That competition breeds greatness. I solely believe that. For a guy like him, competition ... man, we talked about it like, 'Hey, welcome. We've got depth now.' Now we're going to go out here and do what we've got to do."

Allen, who essentially didn't have a backup at the end of last season, played 1,050 total defensive snaps in '16. He played 98 of 99 snaps in the Super Bowl and all 123 snaps in the other two postseason games.

Allen has yet to sign his one-year exclusive rights tender, believed to be worth $615,000. He can practice under an injury agreement.

In discussing other elements of the secondary, Manuel said the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant to season-ending pectoral surgery last season wasn't as deflating as it could have been, of course. Trufant is ready to return although he'll be held out of offseason work.

"You know what we did, honestly, by Tru going out? We've taken our game to another level," Manuel said. "Not only Trufant in the leadership role, because, remember, that's the first time he's in that leadership role. That helped him, being along with the team and not being able to play.

"Tru is a competitor; the ultimate competitor. Now he had to take the leadership role verbally, which now helps him in the room. Now he can pull a young guy and say, 'Hey, come over here and do this,' which I watched (Richard) Sherman do that. I watched Earl (Thomas) do that. I watched Kam (Chancellor) do that. We're in a nice, blessed spot right now with all of these guys."

Manuel was asked what now happens to Jalen Collins, who started outside at cornerback opposite Robert Alford when Trufant went down.

"Now you've got a guy who can play dime, he can play outside," Manuel said. "He just made more value to him."

And what about the nickel?

"Poole," Manuel said. "Robert. Tru. All of them. That's the cool part."

Manuel also has a hard-hitting strong safety coming back in Keanu Neal, who excelled as a rookie last season. Neal had 105 tackles and led all rookies with five forced fumbles, one behind league-leaders Vic Beasley Jr. of the Falcons and Bruce Irvin of the Oakland Raiders.