Atlanta Falcons: How Richie Grant fits in Dean Pees’ defense

May 14, 2021; Flowery Branch, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant (27) shown on the field during rookie camp at the Falcons Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
May 14, 2021; Flowery Branch, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant (27) shown on the field during rookie camp at the Falcons Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

With the 40th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons selected Richie Grant, a safety out of UCF. The Falcons made many changes to their franchise this off-season, hiring a new defensive coordinator and getting rid of three of their best defensive backs. Grant will likely play a big role during his rookie year, and he just might be a perfect fit for the Falcons’ defense.

In February, the Atlanta Falcons announced they were hiring Dean Pees to be their new defensive coordinator. Pees has a lot of coaching experience, as he’s spent the past forty-two years coaching in both college football and the NFL.

He got his start in 1979 as the University of Findlay’s defensive coordinator and secondary coach. He continued coaching in college football until 2003, and during this time, he coached at Michigan State and Notre Dame along with five other lower-level schools. He was even the head coach at Kent State from 1998-2003. Unfortunately, his time as a head coach was anything but successful, as he sported a record of 17-51.

In 2004, he got his first shot in the NFL with the New England Patriots. They hired him to be their linebackers coach, but in 2006, he took over as the defensive coordinator. That season, the Patriots allowed 0.269 points per play, making them the third most efficient defense in the league.

He left the Patriots in 2010, joining the Baltimore Ravens’ staff as their inside linebackers coach. He became their defensive coordinator in 2012 and filled that role until 2017. The Ravens had a top ten defense in four out of five seasons with Pees as their defensive coordinator.

Pees came out of retirement in 2018, joining the Tennessee Titans’ staff as the defensive coordinator. He wasn’t there long, only staying for two seasons, but he led their defense to two top ten seasons during his tenure.

He retired again for the 2020 season, but his love for the game called him back, and he joined the Atlanta Falcons as their defensive coordinator in February of this year. His addition to their coaching staff should give Falcons fans some hope because Pees has had success everywhere he’s been in the NFL.

He’s been with three teams since joining the NFL and led each of those teams’ defense to at least one top-five season. He also won two rings, one with the Patriots and one with the Ravens. Simply put, he’s an awesome defensive coordinator.

The Falcons’ defense likely won’t succeed right away, but they will have a totally different philosophy with Pees calling the shots.

According to Matthew Tabeek, Pees told media members what they can expect to see from the Falcons’ defense in his first press conference. Here’s what he had to say; “One of the things that our defense will know, if you’re on our defense, every position will blitz,” Pees said. “Every position. Not just the safeties. Not just the linebackers. It’s corners. It’s everybody.”

As you can see from this quote, the Atlanta Falcons will be blitzing a lot with every position. This is nice to hear because the Falcons have often been in the league’s bottom half in blitz percentage over the last three years.

This leads to the big question, does Richie Grant fit in Pees’ defense, and what can we expect from him in his rookie season? Considering the scheme he’ll be a part of, and what role he’ll play, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him have a stellar rookie season.

Grant had an incredible career at UCF in which he played four total seasons and forty-six games. During his four-year collegiate career, he racked up 290 total tackles (189 solo), 11.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 10 interceptions, 17 pass deflections, 5 forced fumbles, and 4 fumble recoveries.

His sophomore season was awe-inspiring, as he put up 108 total tackles (68 solo), 3 tackles for loss, 6 interceptions, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery.

Grant’s biggest strengths are his processing speed, range, and ability to get down in the box and tackle ball carriers.

He does a great job reading the field and making quick decisions based on what he sees playing out in front of him. This trait will make him extremely dangerous in coverage because he won’t get confused and end up out of position.

This upcoming season, the Falcons will run many coverages with one safety starting in the middle of the field before the snap. Sometimes they’ll rotate into a cover two look with two safeties, and other times they’ll stick with cover one or cover three. For your defense to be successful with just one high safety, you need either good cornerbacks or a good safety with range.

The Falcons don’t have good cornerbacks. In fact, the only defensive back on their roster with an approximate value of at least five in 2020 was AJ Terrell, who is entering his second season. Approximate value is a stat created by football reference that attempts to attach a single number to every player to compare players from every era. It’s not perfect due to its reliance on games played, but it is a solid metric.

Since the Atlanta Falcons don’t have quality cornerbacks, they need a safety with the range to make plays deep down the field. Luckily for them, Grant has pretty good range and can succeed in this role.

Grant was a productive ballhawk in college, mostly because he is brilliant and can make plays on throws near the sideline. If he continues to excel in coverage, he’ll be great in the Falcons’ defense.

It’ll be interesting to see how Pees uses Grant when the rookie isn’t playing deep in coverage. It’s expected that Pees will use him as a blitzer, but he likely won’t provide much value as a pass rusher. He is phenomenal at getting low and tackling ball carriers, but he’s never been great at pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

In four seasons at UCF, he had just one sack. He also doesn’t have great size, standing 6-feet tall and weighing 197 pounds, which may cause problems when he engages with big, long pass blockers. This combination of underwhelming size and a lack of production indicates that Grant likely won’t be an impactful pass rusher.

Nevertheless, his ability to cover with range and play down in the box gives him the versatility to be a solid safety in the NFL.

Although there is a lot to like about Grant, Falcons fans should probably temper their expectations for him. He, without a doubt, has an extremely valuable skill set, but his age and physical tools are a cause for concern.

Right now, Grant is twenty-three years old, but he’ll turn twenty-four on November 9th. He’ll be twenty-four years old as a rookie, which isn’t very common.

He officially signed his rookie contract on June 18th, which is four years long and makes him around $8.3 million richer. This means that by the end of his first contract, he’ll already be twenty-eight years old. By then, the Atlanta Falcons may not want to give him an extension that lasts until his early thirties.

Aside from the issue of his potential second contract, his age also means he probably doesn’t have that much upside. Obviously, things can change, and just because he’s an older rookie doesn’t mean he can’t be a star. However, chances are he’ll never reach the level of Jamal Adams or Earl Thomas.

His physical tools are another issue that limits his upside. Grant had a solid performance at his pro day, but his athletic testing numbers aren’t out of this world. His relative athletic score was 7.80 and was brought down by his underwhelming size and vertical jump (34.5 inches). His 4.57 forty-yard dash time is good, but not great for someone who will likely have to cover a large portion of the field in coverage.

Grant’s athletic testing numbers don’t signal impending disaster, but they indicate that the twenty-four-year-old may end up being a solid starter rather than a great one.

The Falcons will be a different team this season, especially on defense, and the introduction of Dean Pees as their defensive coordinator should help them out a lot. Their defense will be more aggressive, and their secondary needs a rangy safety who can cover when they blitz their opponents.

Richie Grant was one of the best safety prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.  His versatility as a tackler and ballhawk make him extremely valuable and should allow him to excel in Dean Pees’ defense. Although there are reasons to be concerned about his upside, there’s no doubt that he has the talent to be successful with the Atlanta Falcons.