Today marks the start of our 2014 Secret Superstars series and, after highlighting Andre Ellington of the Arizona Cardinals earlier, we now turn our attention to the Atlanta Falcons. A preseason Super Bowl favorite of many, things didn’t go to plan for the Falcons, and they wound up crashing to a 4-12 record.
Safety has been a position of concern in Atlanta in each of the past two seasons, with the now jettisoned Thomas DeCoud only showing brief flashes of solid play in 2012 before finishing 2013 as our fourth-lowest graded safety.
Addressing the position in several ways this offseason, they recently drafted Dezmen Southward out of Wisconsin in the third round of the NFL Draft, but we’re going to focus on a free agent addition, Dwight Lowery, who has a chance to claim the job himself heading into the 2014 season.
Lowery started his career at cornerback for the New York Jets after being drafted out of San Jose State in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. While his rookie season had its ups and downs, he generally held his own, starting the first 10 games of the season and breaking up 13 passes over the course of the year. He would start just six games for the Jets in 2009 but, while his play had dropped a little bit from his rookie year, he finished the season strong, with four positively-graded games in the final five.
2010 saw him switch positions to safety, and he impressed during four starts at the position late in the year. Though his snaps played on defense dropped for the second straight year, he had proved his worth with another solid season, and added the versatility of being able to play well at a few different spots.
He would move to the Jacksonville Jaguars ahead of the 2011 season and, taking over as a starting safety for the team, had the lowest-graded full season of his career to date (+0.6). That’s not the worst thing in the world, considering it was essentially an average season. 2012 was much better and, while he missed some time through injury, he still finished the year as our 10th-highest graded safety in coverage. His 2013 season ended in Week 3, and he now gets the chance to earn a starting job once again in 2014 in Atlanta.
With DeCoud’s struggles for the Falcons, starting a steady veteran like Lowery would be a steadying force in a secondary that features the talented Desmond Trufant and form a nice partnership with William Moore who, coming off a disappointing season, will be looking to rebound in 2014.
After drafting Southward in the third round, you would imagine that the expectation in Atlanta is for him to eventually start for the team, but with Lowery on board, they don’t have to force the rookie into the starting lineup early. To see what Lowery can offer the Falcons, we just need to look back at his 2012 season in Jacksonville, where he had so much success in coverage.
One of his best games of the year came in Week 5 against the Chicago Bears, with one play in particular standing out, highlighting his play in coverage. On 3rd-and-13 with 5:53 to go in the third quarter, he lined up close to Brandon Marshall and kept close coverage to the big wide receiver before knocking the ball away in the end zone.
Sadly he picked up an injury on that play and, while he did come back to play in that game, he would be out of action until Week 12 after that. The injury obviously makes the fact that he finished as our 10th highest graded safety in coverage even more impressive, with a +7.1 coverage grade coming from just nine starts in 2012.
While we feel like Lowery is going to be a solid addition to the Atlanta defense, it’s worth pointing out the potential limitations of him as a Secret Superstar. For Atlanta, this signing is a hit even if all Lowery can provide is a bit of stability at the position after DeCoud’s struggles, manning the starting role until they feel that Southward is ready.
He’s unlikely to be the type of Secret Superstar like Richard Sherman who we felt had the potential for become one of the better cornerbacks in the league back when we did our 2012 series but, as you can imagine, not every team has a player like that on their roster anyway.
Instead, we’re more likely to see him claim the starting job next to Moore and become a solid player for an Atlanta team that will be expecting to bounce back and return to the playoffs in 2014. That would be good enough for us and, after the struggles they saw at the position last season, you would imagine the Falcons would be delighted too.
Follow Gordon on Twitter.