As far as seventh round picks go, few offer the kind of value Kemal Ishmael brings to the Falcons.
Since going pro in 2013, the 25-year-old defender has served as a reliable safety, effective special teamer and, last season, a weakside linebacker. By re-signing the UCF product on Monday, Atlanta ensured one of its most physical and versatile players will be back for the 2017 campaign.
“We are pleased to be able to get Kemal back,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “He is one of the toughest competitors we have and continued to battle every week last year despite a shoulder injury. He has shown the ability to play both safety and linebacker for us and that will continue to be valuable in our scheme.”
Before going on injured reserve in December, Ishmael wore a lot of different hats as Atlanta worked towards a division title. He filled in for Keanu Neal as he recovered for his own injury, making 22 tackles in Weeks 1 and 2. He then continued to chip in on kick/punt coverage. And he showed a lot of promise when moved to the front seven.
Per head coach Dan Quinn, the 6-foot, 206-pounder is at his best when he’s down in the box. This is especially true when defending the rush: Last season, in 87 snaps against the run, he made 15 total tackles, gained four stops and missed just one tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.
He had an extended chance to play WLB in Week 5 against the Broncos when he made 10 tackles, helping Atlanta hold Denver to 84 rushing yards on 24 carries – a 3.5 average.
“We just love the versatility that we have and he’s one of our very best tacklers,” Quinn said after that game. “We love to play zone and we can put him in at different spots. We came in today, someone who moves around a lot in the box, he plays a lot of that as a strong safety, so we just moved him in a little bit closer.”
Though Ishmael doesn’t have the size of a typical linebacker, lots of modern-day defenses, including the Falcons’, are using smaller defenders in the box to deal with the way offenses have changed throughout the NFL.
Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals and Mark Barron of the Rams have carved out unique and significant roles because of this transformation. Both physical safeties when they entered the league, they’ve earned their keep as hybrids – also called moneybackers or rovers – allowing them to utilize their skill sets in ways traditional positions can’t.
“In a growing league-wide trend to combat the wide-open offenses we now see in the NFL, both Bucannon and Barron are hybrid defenders, guys who can play safety but really play down in the box as a linebacker,” CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco wrote last September.
“The ability to play different positions, and be able to do a variety of things, creates scheme issues for an offense and it also allows speed and coverage to be a factor. It used to be a league where big-thumping, powerful linebackers were needed to stop the running game, but it’s now more than ever about covering ground.
“You need wheels, not as much power.”
Ishmael could be used in a similar manner as Bucannon and Barron, if only on a part-time basis. Certainly, his evolving role in Atlanta be an interesting storyline to watch when the team returns to Flowery Branch.