The Atlanta Falcons’ cornerback position features some of the team’s most talented players on the roster, but has some of the biggest question marks as well. Those questions center on the lack of proven NFL-caliber depth behind that top-tier talent, making for an interesting mix for training camp.
Desmond Trufant was the only reliable defensive player the Falcons had a year ago as they sported one of the league’s worst defenses of all-time. But that poor overall performance had little to do with Trufant, who’s solid follow-up to a promising rookie year now has solidified him as one of the league’s premier cornerbacks.
If constructing the prototypical cornerback that Dan Quinn’s defense looks for, it would not wind up looking like Trufant. While possessing above average size for an NFL cornerback, few would ever label Trufant as a “big” corner. He’s also capable of playing press coverage, but thus far in his short NFL career hasn’t had the sort of opportunities to show whether it is his forte like Quinn’s scheme prefers.
But those things won’t prohibit Trufant from playing well in Quinn’s scheme. Frankly, a good cornerback is a good cornerback and with Trufant’s excellent speed, ball skills, instincts and toughness, there is really no reason to expect that his play from the past two years will drop off to any real degree.
Trufant will man the left cornerback position, and across from him is expected to be Robert Alford, although there is certainly a strong perception that he could be pushed by the team’s second-round draft pick in Jalen Collins. However, it’s unlikely that even if the Falcons’ new coaching staff open up the competition, that Alford would lose it. Collins is arguably the most physically gifted cornerback on the roster, but he’s also fairly inexperienced with only 10 career starts while at LSU. Collins also missed much of the offseason recovering from a foot injury and wasn’t known for great practice habits while at LSU, suggesting that the potential that he could beat Alford in a fair competition is small.
That doesn’t even factor Alford’s say in the matter, who by many observers has been outstanding this offseason. While Trufant was the one shining hope of the Falcons defense a year ago, Alford was not far behind as one of the defense’s premier playmakers. While Alford had various down games at points in 2014, he also showed great promise thanks to a high level of confidence and “moxie.”
One also can believe that Alford’s performance will only improve within Quinn’s new scheme. Like Trufant, few would call Alford a big corner, but he is certainly one that loves to get his hands on receivers. Also the ability to jam and redirect receivers at the line of scrimmage could help cover up some of Alford’s more erratic technique that at times troubled him in 2014.
Despite suggestions that he won’t provide overwhelming competition for Alford’s starting spot, there are still very high expectations that Collins will be able to immediately slide into the vacated nickel cornerback position. At least involving the top three corners, the only real question is which of the three will man the slot cornerback spot with the starting nickel defense. While Collins will be the first cornerback off the bench, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s destined to play the slot. The early word was that perhaps Alford would slide inside to man the slot in nickel situations. That still may be the plan, but finding a player that the team is comfortable with playing inside for 40 percent of defensive plays this year will be something of importance this summer.
After Trufant, Alford and Collins, it is really anybody’s guess as to how the rest of the Falcons’ cornerback depth will shape up this summer. There are six players competing for what will probably wind up being two, at most three, more reserve spots.
Phillip Adams is the most experienced of the group, which probably makes him the front-runner for one of the spots. Akeem King and Dezmen Southward were college safeties with minimal work at cornerback, and what little they got didn’t exactly go over swimmingly. Kevin White, Michael Lee and Jonathon Mincy are all undrafted free agents that have the talent to stick on an NFL roster, but it remains to be seen if the Falcons want to be one injury away from starting any of them in the nickel.
That’s what probably gives Adams a leg up in the competition. While he hasn’t played at a high level anywhere he’s been over the past five years, he’s at least seen what quality NFL receivers look like and thus would be the best prepared to potentially face them if Trufant, Alford or Collins are sidelined. Adams’ familiarity with Quinn’s defense also potentially gives him an edge in case his on-field play doesn’t clearly distinguish himself from the rest of the pack.
After him, it’s really a wide open competition. While King and Southward have the pedigree of actually getting drafted, it may not do them any real favors this summer. They’ll start on an even playing field with the rest since both are converted safeties that potentially will fill the same niche on the roster. Their primary values will be on special teams since both are exceedingly raw as cornerbacks. Ideally one will be kept on the roster while the other goes on the practice squad. Both have the raw, physical tools to work with and develop down the line, but barring a really strong summer, probably won’t be counted on to garner serious reps on defense in 2015.
But given their collective lack of experience at cornerback, one could easily imagine any of the three undrafted players behind them leapfrogging them in a roster battle. White is the most well-known of the group, who had a strong week of work at the Senior Bowl last January. His 5’9″ frame doesn’t make him the sort of classic, big corner that Quinn’s defense covets, but it might make him a good option to play inside in the slot as a developmental option; especially if the Falcons discover during the course of summer that neither Alford, Collins or Trufant are ideally suited to stick there long-term.
Lee has better size, showcases the ball skills and also could impress this summer if he shows the versatility to potentially play inside. Mincy was initially expected to get looks at free safety rather than cornerback, but early returns on his work in minicamps saw him get reps with the first-team defense. While that won’t mean he’ll open the season as the third cornerback, it does potentially indicate that he may have already surpassed the others and is the front-runner to land the last spot after Adams. Mincy doesn’t have great size, but broke up a lot of passes (26) over his three years as a starter at Auburn, suggesting he has upside.
Many of these young guys have an opportunity to impress this summer and one among them is probably the best bet for anyone trying to figure out which undrafted rookie stands the best chance at sticking on the final 53-man roster. Their path to the roster has few major obstacles given the utter lack of experience of anyone not named Trufant, Alford and Adams at this position group.
If nobody steps up this summer as a good candidate to become the fourth corner, then the Falcons may very well look to bolster their depth on the waiver wire at the end of August. It should be also noted that the Seahawks during Quinn’s tenure there were a team that wasn’t afraid to pull off a preseason trade, recently acquiring cornerback Marcus Burley last summer. It’s certainly possible that the same could occur in Atlanta this summer if none of the backup corners inspire a ton of confidence.