The cornerback position is easily the biggest strength on the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive roster with the solid play of starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, yet there is still an incentive for the team to bolster their depth this offseason.
Based off his solid play in 2015, it seems silly to look back to the offseason and wonder why there were ever concerns over whether Alford could be a quality starter at cornerback. The second-round selection of Jalen Collins coupled with an up and down 2014 season from Alford, people wondered if the latter would be relegated to the nickel cornerback role or moved to free safety.
But Alford answered his doubters, teaming with Trufant to become one of the league’s best pairs of starting cornerbacks this past year. Trufant was able to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate with a third consecutive strong season, but there were a few times where even he looked like he was the lesser of the pair of corners, another testament to Alford’s play this past year. Alford certainly had a couple of rough games, but overall showed a lot more consistency and play-making skills in his first year under head coach Dan Quinn.
The chief concern at this position last year was the play at nickel cornerback, which isn’t a new development in Atlanta since that spot has been mostly problematic for the better part of the past decade.
Between Alford and Collins, expectations going into the season were that whomever failed to secure the starting job would solidify the nickel spot. However after missing much of the offseason with a foot injury, Collins followed it up with a rough set of outings in the preseason. It prompted the Falcons to move forward with veteran Phillip Adams as their nickel corner to start the regular season.
But eventually the team began to work Collins back into the lineup and he was able to have a couple of positive moments through the middle portion of the season, but seemingly inexplicably the Falcons returned to Adams in the nickel in Week 14. Adams handled that spot for the remainder of the year, raising questions over whether Collins found himself in the coaching staff’s doghouse given his lack of playing time down the stretch. If so, that could carry over into 2016, when the team might ask him to compete for the nickel spot rather than handing it to him.
Adams is now a free agent and his value is his experience and the depth he provides at the position, showing an ability to play inside in the slot whenever the team didn’t employ Alford in that role. But in reality the Falcons should be able to find a better option on the open market. Frankly while Adams is a known commodity, he’s not a particularly good one.
One possibility would be Will Blackmon, who spent some time with the Seattle Seahawks during Quinn’s stint there in 2013. Blackmon, 31, was picked up midseason by an injury-depleted Washington Redskins team and was a functional to at times good nickel cornerback for them. Like Adams, Blackmon is a steady veteran that is probably a bit more adept playing in the slot, giving the Falcons valuable insurance there if signed.
Other potential free-agent candidates include fellow Seahawks ex-teammates Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond. Both have been at various times starters or nickel corners during their time up north. But it’s unlikely the Falcons could add either given that they could potentially land starting spots with other teams.
Other low-level free agents that the Falcons might be interested in bringing in are a pair of Dallas Cowboys in either Morris Claiborne or Josh Thomas. Claiborne is a former first-round pick that was marred by injuries and poor play in four seasons in Dallas, but his former position coach Jerome Henderson is now on the Falcons’ coaching staff and might hope to foster Claiborne as a reclamation project. Thomas is notable after signing with the Cowboys late in the season, but also spent a brief time with the Seahawks in 2014.
Also the Falcons might be willing to settle for Akeem King as the primary competition for Collins next year. But the 2015 seventh-round pick still remains a project. Instead it’s likelier that the Falcons will bring another late-round cornerback prospect to push King, rather than him pushing for the nickel spot next year. Since Pete Carroll took the reins of the Seahawks in 2010, they have drafted a cornerback every spring with the exception of 2014. That might be a practice that Quinn brings to Atlanta, given it gave Seattle a steady stable of options in the event of losing players to free agency or injuries over the years.
But despite not having a firm answer as far as their nickel spot goes, it’s likely that it will be Collins’ job to lose in 2016. The Falcons’ offseason goal will likely be to add depth and insurance here, whether via the draft or free agency, in case Collins proves that he’s not anymore ready for the nickel spot in 2016 as he was in 2015.