Ricardo Allen keeps business-like approach without contract

Falcons safety Ricardo Allen, who made $615,000 in 2017 as an exclusive-rights free agent, is due for a huge raise in 2018. Paul Sancya/AP

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Ricardo Allen's approach hasn't changed.

The Atlanta Falcons free safety still aims to be the first player at the facility every day. He still tries to lead the sprints during offseason workouts. He still studies film weekly as if he's preparing for the next opponent, even with the regular season months away.

What's different about Allen these days is he's doing all of the above without a contract. He has yet to sign the second-round tender worth $2.914 million the team extended to him in March as a restricted free agent. Naturally, Allen wants a long-term deal rather than having to play under the one-year tender. But contract talks between the team and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, won't alter Allen's focus on the team goals.

"I personally don't come in and work hard and be the person I am because of circumstances -- that I may get a contract," Allen said. "That's something you want to happen in the long run. But at the end of the day, we all know it's a business. That's what you have to take it as. It's business on both sides.

"I'm going to always compete and do my best for this team. But I'm going to build myself to be ready for any opportunity, anything that comes. I pray that it's here and I don't have to pick up and move. But in the long run, I have to be ready for me and my family, if that opportunity comes."

It's unclear when Allen will sign his tender, but he'll get a significant raise from the $615,000 he made in 2017. The last Falcons restricted free agent to be rewarded with a long-term deal was right tackle Ryan Schraeder, who signed his $2.553 million second-rounder tender during the offseason of 2016 before signing a five-year, $31.5 million extension ($12.5 million guaranteed).

The market hasn't been too kind to safeties this offseason, with players such as Tre Boston, Kenny Vaccaro and Eric Reid unsigned. Those three are unrestricted free agents, so getting a team to surrender a draft pick for a restricted free agent such as Allen, on top of a long-term deal, was even more unlikely.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said in February that he believes the team could create space for Allen and others to receive long-term deals. However, Dimitroff prioritized left tackle Jake Matthews and nose tackle Grady Jarrett as next in line after the team signed quarterback Matt Ryan to a five-year, $150 million extension that included $100 million guaranteed. In addition, the Falcons might have to revisit star receiver Julio Jones' deal with three years and almost $35 million remaining because other less accomplished receivers have signed more lucrative deals.

The Falcons already signed starting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to extensions worth $13.75 million and $9.5 million per year, respectively. Strong safety Keanu Neal, a Pro Bowler in his second season, is sure to be rewarded handsomely. As critical as Allen is to the defense, one would think the Falcons would lock him up rather than allow him to reach free agency after the 2018 season. The average salary of the league's five highest-paid free safeties is $9.65 million per year.

Allen signed an injury waiver allowing him to practice and work out with the team for now. It covers the full amount of the RFA tender.

"Right now, the injury waiver covers me," Allen said. "I was hoping I would be able to come out with something [long-term], but I don't want to get too deep into that. I don't want any conflict. I just want to play ball. That's it."

Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, who has mentioned Allen in the same breath as Earl Thomas in relation to both erasing big plays, appreciates Allen's professional approach despite the contract uncertainty.

"One thing we all know about Ricardo, you guys included, is that he is a blue-collar worker that comes in every day," Manuel said. "You show leadership that way. And he's doing a good job. ... He understands his involvement with the team, where he leads the guys."

Allen was the Falcons' surest tackler last season and showed the versatility to play multiple positions with his background as a cornerback. He played 902 snaps while starting all 16 games and had 54 combined tackles. He helped the Falcons evolve into a top-10 defense in scoring and total yards for the first time since 1998.

The statistic Allen isn't the least bit satisfied with is his interceptions, with one last season and six in his three-year career. He has put more emphasis on speed and flexibility training this offseason, hoping to get sideline-to-sideline and make more plays on the ball. Allen now emphasizes holding his form and showing endurance.

"I'm going to get that ball," Allen said. "I don't have a specific goal, but it's more than what I've had since I've been here. I'd say four-plus, five-plus [interceptions]. Just trying to take it to another level of getting the ball for this defense, getting the ball out and just making more splash plays."

Manuel sees Allen taking his game to another level.

"Even though you guys see him do his job all the time, I challenge him on consistency," Manuel said. "How consistent can you be on the play that you could have made if you were [as] persistent as you should be?

"Sometimes your awareness can cause paralysis, and it happen[s] for him at times. Love him to death, but I'm going to always be honest with him. And that's one of things that we've harped on: consistency and accountability of doing my job every single time and being in position to make sure I make every play that I'm supposed to make."

Although Allen has stuck to his business-like approach, there is one significant difference in him this offseason. He is now a college graduate after receiving his sociology degree from Purdue University. He had nine credit hours left and finished online in the months immediately following the Falcons' playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I wasn't doing it for so long, so it was hard to get into the groove of taking classes," said Allen, a fifth-round pick in 2014. "It wasn't even about how hard the work was. It was how much work it was. Man, it was cool to go back and [graduate]. Shoot, it was something that I always dreamed of."

A new long-term deal would be yet another dream come true.