The Atlanta Falcons saw significant turnover this offseason at the cornerback position and are expected to fill that void in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Falcons’ three primary backups from a year ago: Robert McClain, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas all became free agents at the outset of this offseason and McClain and Wilson have moved on to New England and Detroit, respectively. Arenas is still unsigned as a free agent, but at this point is not expected to return to Atlanta.
That leaves a massive void in terms of depth at the cornerback position heading into this year’s draft. The Falcons addressed it somewhat by signing Phillip Adams in free agency. But Adams at this point is better considered to be closer to a camp body than someone that can be penciled into the nickel cornerback position.
Adams has experience playing for new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn from shared days in Seattle, but he struggled last year in brief opportunity for the New York Jets. Adams is essentially a journeyman, with the Falcons being his sixth team since entering the league as a seventh-round pick in 2010. Both he and the Falcons hope that he can put down roots in Atlanta, but given that he signed a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum, it’s not something that either party can count on occurring.
That leaves Ricardo Allen and Jordan Mabin as the only other options currently on the roster. But neither player possesses the length that Quinn’s defenses have traditionally preferred at the position. Like Adams, both will be fighting just for the chance at earning a roster spot, let alone being asked to play nearly 60 percent of the snaps in the team’s sub-packages as the nickel cornerback.
The team is potentially so desperate for quality depth at cornerback that they are tinkering with the idea of moving free safety Dezmen Southward to the position, despite the fact that it is a completely brand new position for him. But unlike Allen and Mabin, Southward possesses both the size and athletic traits that Quinn’s press-heavy scheme prefers. But Southward is a project at best if he makes the position switch and also shouldn’t be expected to be a serious candidate to win the nickel spot this summer.
So the Falcons will likely try and make up the difference via this year’s draft. And given the utter lack of proven options already on the roster, cornerback becomes the most likely position that the Falcons could “double dip” on by using two or more of their eight picks to address it.
While Quinn was coaching defense in Seattle, the Seahawks made a habit of drafting cornerbacks in the late rounds. There they targeted a market inefficiency, opting for the sorts of prospects that most other NFL teams saw as “tweeners” between cornerback and safety. The Seahawks were able to mine that inefficiency to find notable contributors like Walter Thurmond, Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane and Tharold Simon, all of whom were selected in the fourth round or later.
Based off the majority of cornerbacks that the Falcons have shown interest in this offseason, it appears that they will attempt to follow suit, as most are potential third-day prospects. However, one major difference is that the market isn’t quite as inefficient as it once was. Last year saw a number of big corners get drafted early, as teams looked to mimic the Seahawks’ success. A number of players that fit the Seahawks’ template are projected to be potential first-round picks.
It’s highly unlikely that the Falcons will use one of their earliest picks at the position. But Quinn himself noted a month ago to ESPN that addressing the team’s lack of depth at the position is a priority. But more than likely, the Falcons would prefer to wait until the fourth round or later to find those depth options.
The only concern about waiting in the draft is whether or not the Falcons are going to hit on a player that could potentially be asked to play significant reps right away. Sherman was the only one among the Seahawks’ late-round corners that played more than a third of the defensive snaps as a rookie.
It’s also worth noting that just because the Falcons are looking for a nickel cornerback, doesn’t necessarily equate that they are targeting someone to play in the slot. Quinn has already noted that the Falcons could easily slide starters Desmond Trufant or Robert Alford inside in sub-packages, while leaving the actual nickel back to play as an outside corner.
More than likely, the Falcons will be looking for someone that fits that Seahawks model, as a tall corner with “plus” athletic traits that should help add much-needed size and physicality to play press in the team’s new defensive scheme.
Cornerback is certainly going to be a priority for the Falcons on draft weekend, but that may not be truly reflected in how high they select a player. The Falcons will hope that they can repeat the Seahawks’ success by finding a couple of hidden gems late in the draft.