The big news of the past week for the Atlanta Falcons was the impending four-game suspension of cornerback Jalen Collins and it’s potential fallout.
The second-year player will now miss the first month of the 2016 regular season due to taking unknown banned substances as part of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
If there is any positive to this news, this puts Collins in the same boat as Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who was also suspended four games during his second NFL season back in 2012.
Sherman blamed unknowingly ingesting adderall for his positive test and eventually won his appeal due to improper handling of his test sample by a league official. He never missed a game.
Sherman was a player that I made comparisons to in regards to Collins after he was selected by the Falcons in the second round of last April’s draft. I dialed back that ambitious comparison to Aqib Talib in my scouting report and eventually Jimmy Smith after Collins’ lackluster first training camp with the Falcons.
I still believe that Collins can be good in Atlanta, but it’s hard to be as optimistic following this suspension. It is obviously a setback for both him and the team.
Falcons Could Seek to Fill Cornerback Void With Free-Agent Pickup
For the latter, they should be able to handle it in the short term by adding another player to shore up depth and replace Collins as the team’s nickel cornerback for the first regular-season games. Currently unsigned free agent Phillip Adams is an obvious option, given he’s a relatively known commodity after having served as the team’s third corner for most of 2015.
The Falcons’ coaching staff is also familiar with other current free agents in Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond and Mike Jenkins. All three could be capable of at least being short-term third options at the cornerback position.
Browner played right corner under Falcons head coach Dan Quinn when he was the defensive coordinator the Seahawks in 2013, which is the same role that Collins fills when Robert Alford kicks inside to the slot in the nickel sub-package.
Browner is coming off a disastrous 2015 campaign with the New Orleans Saints, where he was the most penalized player in NFL history. Recently Browner revealed that he played with a torn MCL last season, but nonetheless signing him would be a risky proposition given he’s always been prone to drawing flags and will turn 32 before the season starts.
Thurmond is easily the best player among the trio of outside options, but is currently contemplating retirement and has actively turned down lucrative contract offers from other teams according to reports.
Thurmond played in the slot for the Seahawks in 2013 at a high level before serving his own four-game suspension that year. He’ll turn 29 in August and has battled injuries throughout his collegiate and NFL career, likely prompting him to considering hanging up the cleats prematurely.
Thurmond also played safety for the Philadelphia Eagles last year, but would easily be asked to return to his natural cornerback position if he were to be lured to Atlanta for one last go of it.
Jenkins played under new defensive coach Jerome Henderson back in the former’s final season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2012. The 31-year old veteran has since become somewhat of a journeyman, playing with the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the past three seasons.
He missed all but one game in 2014 with a torn pectoral muscle. He managed to start five early-season games a year ago with the Buccaneers when they decided to reduce starter Alterraun Verner’s playing time, but Jenkins himself eventually saw his reps evaporate after his own lackluster results.
Draft Unlikely Answer to Cornerback Depth Problems
The Falcons could potentially also address their need for additional cornerback depth in the upcoming draft, although the limited ammunition they have headed into the event makes that an iffy proposition at best.
The Seahawks regularly took a flyer on a late-round cornerback every year during head coach Pete Carroll’s first four years with the team while Quinn served as an assistant. During that span, they were able to hit on players like Thurmond (fourth round, 2010), Sherman (fifth round, 2011), Byron Maxwell (sixth round, 2011) and Jeremy Lane (sixth round, 2012) with that approach.
The Falcons only hold two picks on the final day of the 2016 draft in the fourth and seventh rounds. Between those two selections, it’s likelier that the team will utilize the later pick on a cornerback. Yet even still, it would be a tall order for the team to expect a seventh-round rookie to be ready to fill in as a nickel cornerback in Week One when Collins’ suspension kicks in.
In today’s NFL, the nickel cornerback is without a doubt a starter given that data shows that teams used that sub-package on 63.4 percent of defensive plays in 2015. Only six cornerbacks taken in the seventh round over the past decade have started at least four games during their rookie seasons. In that span there have been a total of 56 cornerbacks selected in the seventh round, putting the Falcons’ chances of finding the seventh such rookie at roughly 11 percent.
That leaves the yet to be named free agent or one of the two current backups on the roster: Demarcus Van Dyke or Akeem King as more realistic options to fill the void left by Collins.
Van Dyke is a veteran but hasn’t played a snap on defense since his rookie season with the Raiders in 2011. In fact, Adams is partially to blame for Van Dyke getting cut by the Raiders in 2012 since the team added the former as part of the makeover of their cornerback depth before the start of that season. So it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense for the Falcons to put any more stock in Van Dyke moving forward than they would have in Adams.
Expecting King to be ready to go to open the season makes even less sense given how raw a player he was coming out of San Jose State last season. King had only earned meaningful snaps at cornerback in a handful of games during his junior season, in which he struggled mightily. He spent the bulk of his collegiate career playing safety and is still in the beginning stages of learning to be an NFL cornerback. It’s simply not realistic to expect a player as green as him to be able to get the Falcons through the first four games as a de facto starter.
So as the Falcons scramble to secure their cornerback depth in the coming weeks or months, more scrutiny will be placed upon Collins, who has increasingly become an unpopular draft pick. And much of it has been through no fault of his own.
Collins Faces Additional Scrutiny Due to Mistakes at Linebacker
Collins certainly did himself no favors by struggling throughout first professional season, but the Falcons’ offseason (in)decision of not solidifying the middle linebacker position has prompted people to call his selection into greater question. All one has to do is string together the search terms “Collins” and “Kendricks” on twitter to gauge the increasing incredulity over his selection in the second round of last year’s draft.
The reality is that if the Falcons had done a better job upgrading their middle linebacker position this offseason, there would be far less people pining for the presence of Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks. It’s darkly humorous to think that Paul Worrilow is so reviled that he makes Collins look worse by proxy.
Yet even though the suspension won’t stop fans from questioning the pick, it also shouldn’t stop Collins from playing well in 2016. The suspension won’t keep him away from the team’s facilities and practices during the offseason or training camp and he’ll still able to participate in preseason games later this summer.
Hopefully his impending absence only fuels Collins to work even harder in the intervening months, which was not something he was known for during his days on campus at LSU. If recent events don’t prompt Collins to improve his work ethic, then it’s likely nothing will.
Collins also failed multiple drug tests during college, which likely greased the wheels for his fall out of the first round, since many considered him to be among the premier talents at the cornerback position in last year’s draft class.
But Collins can’t afford any more slip-ups. When he comes off suspension in Week Five, he’ll have to hit the ground running immediately and play at least to the level of a quality nickel to get rid of much of the bad taste lingering in the mouths of Falcons fans.
How this suspension impacts both Collins and the Falcons long-term has yet to be determined. Much of it will depend on how Collins performs over the final 12 games this upcoming season.
2017 Free Agency Likely To Be Lucrative For Both Alford and Trufant
Both starters Alford and Desmond Trufant are entering the final years of their rookie contracts, although it’s a virtual lock that the team will pick up the latter’s fifth-year option before the May 2 deadline. That will put Trufant under contract through the 2017 season for an additional cost of $8 million.
Yet that still leaves Alford vulnerable to hit what is likely to be a very lucrative open market next spring. Cornerbacks are among the position groups that most easily cash in every offseason when free agency begins, evidenced by monster deals signed by Janoris Jenkins and Sean Smith this past offseason as well as players like Byron Maxwell and Chris Culliver last year.
Culliver was able to land a four-year contract worth $32 million from the Washington Redskins after only starting 20 games over four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Alford already has 29 career starts to his belt, meaning he could more than double Culliver’s experience by year’s end.
Jenkins was essentially the No. 2 cornerback for the Los Angeles (née St. Louis) Rams last year, prompting the New York Giants to fork up $62.5 million over five years this offseason. That exceeded the annual rate of the contract Maxwell signed last year with the Philadelphia Eagles, which was worth $63 million over six seasons.
Completing the NFC East superfecta is the fact that the Cowboys spent $50 million to lure Brandon Carr away from the Kansas City Chiefs back in 2012.
Even the most conservative estimate suggests that a healthy Alford should be able to land a contract on par with what Culliver received two years ago that averaged $8 million per year. Jenkins’ deal makes him one of the five highest paid cornerbacks in the league, which is a status that the Falcons are only likely to reserve for one of their cornerbacks moving forward.
Trufant Likely to Land Larger Deal From Falcons
If it is indeed a zero-sum game, it’s likely that Trufant will win. Trufant turns 26 at the start of this upcoming season, making him actually two years younger than Alford despite both being a part of the Falcons’ 2013 draft class. He’s also been more consistent and reliable over his first three NFL seasons with steady, high-level play.
That will likely prompt Trufant to be in the running to earn one of the most lucrative contracts ever given to a cornerback whenever the Falcons do decide to extend his deal. That is likely to come in the summer of 2017, if how the Falcons handled wide receiver Julio Jones’ negotiations following his fifth-year option being picked up serves as precedent.
Darrelle Revis’ 2015 contract with the New York Jets is the current record-holder for cornerbacks, averaging just over $14 million annually. It’s possible that Trufant could be seeking a deal on par with the 2013 contract Revis signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that averaged $16 million per year.
Regardless of where Trufant’s contract eventually falls, it’s unlikely that the Falcons will opt to fork up as much to Alford as he could potentially make on the open market. My eyes tell me that Alford is a better player than either Jenkins or Maxwell, and should another NFL team agree, he’s likely to land a deal that will break the Falcons’ bank.
Alford Could Follow Byron Maxwell’s Path to Millions in Free Agency
This was the exact predicament the Seahawks found themselves when Maxwell was set to hit the market a year after the team opted to pay Sherman $56 million over four years back in 2014. While Seahawks general manager John Schneider was vocal about wanting to keep Maxwell on the roster, there was just no fiscally responsible way to do so once the team decided not to place the franchise tag on him.
And while tagging Alford might be tempting next year, it will still be pricey. The franchise tag for cornerbacks was $13.952 million this past offseason and if the NFL’s salary cap jumps at the same rate it did the past year, the tag could exceed $15 million in 2017.
That would make Alford the team’s second highest-paid player in 2017 behind only quarterback Matt Ryan (cap hit of $23.75 million). Frankly tagging a player with little desire of giving him a long-term deal is negotiating in bad faith. This is what soured the well between the Falcons and Brent Grimes four years ago, and no organization should ever pursue such a policy once, let alone twice.
Additionally for Alford’s sake, one can only hope that he is not saddled with a franchise tag that nets him $15 million when there’s the possibility that he could make four times as much if he were to hit the open market.
This puts the returns of both current starting cornerbacks in 2017 at extremely low odds. It’s this eventuality of losing one of the starters as to exactly why the Falcons opted to select Collins as high as they did a year ago.
Impending Loss of Starting Corner in 2017 Likely Prompted Collins Selection
While there were reasonable expectations that both Alford and Trufant would play well in Quinn’s defensive scheme heading into last offseason, neither player were exact prototypes for the press-heavy scheme that regularly put sky-scraping corners like Browner (6’4″) and Sherman (6’3″) on the outside in Seattle.
At 6’1½”, Collins stands a full two inches taller than Trufant, who is a half-inch taller than Alford. Collins’ length (78-inch wingspan) dwarfed that of Trufant (73.5 inches) and Alford (74.5 inches), making the former much closer to the prototype for the scheme.
At the time of the 2015 draft, the Falcons could be fairly confident that both Trufant and Alford would be good within Quinn’s scheme. But Collins had the potential to be great, if his play matched up to his tremendous physical dimensions and tools.
There was no question that Collins would take time to develop given his limited playing time at LSU and raw technique. But the team would have foreseen two years to do so, which plenty of time to work out whatever kinks in his game.
That plan has yet to truly come to fruition as 2016 is not quite a make-or-break season for Collins, but it will be awfully close to one. He needs to show substantial improvement in his technique, footwork, ball skills and run support this season to give the team confidence that the financial decision of letting go of Alford will be relatively painless next season.
While there could easily be dropoff from Alford to Collins in 2017, it might be comparable to the dropoff from Asante Samuel to Alford in 2014. That up-and-down first season in the starting lineup two years ago was an important opportunity for Alford to grow and develop, with Collins potentially enduring the same in 2017.
Thus Collins doesn’t have to be a completely finished product by the end of this upcoming season, but whatever growth he shows between 2015 and 2016 can reasonably be expected to be duplicated from 2016 to 2017, as it was with Alford previously. The bottom line is that the Falcons must be at least confident going into next offseason that Collins can handle the starting gig if it’s thrust upon him.
If Collins’ play this season doesn’t inspire such confidence, then the Falcons are going to be a slight pickle next offseason. They could hope to land a stopgap veteran for one season, hoping to buy Collins another year’s worth of development. But Collins is only signed through 2018, and there won’t be much reason to be overly confident that if he hasn’t yet figured things out by the start of 2017, then another year under his belt won’t make a dramatic difference.
That could pressure the Falcons to utilize another early pick on a cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft, which is a resource that ideally could be allocated to another area of need. Essentially that would be the Falcons admitting that the “Collins experiment” was a failure. Clearly that is not ideal.
What would be ideal is if Collins can head off any potential future turmoil by allowing whatever choices must be made by the team next offseason easier. He will do that by playing well this year. If he does, then both the Falcons and Alford could both benefit.
The Falcons get a cheap but equally good replacement in the starting lineup for two years (until Collins’ contract is up and he’s too due to get overpaid in free agency), while Alford gets paid by some other team that wants to make him their No. 1 cornerback. And Alford would be deserving of that honor, assuming there is no dropoff in his play this season.
Either way, Collins’ suspension raises plenty of doubts heading into the 2016 season. Doubts that will either ease or grow based on how Collins deals with this latest setback. For all parties involved, here’s hoping he handles it well.