The Atlanta Falcons seem pretty secure as far as their starting cornerbacks go heading into the 2014 season, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of questions surrounding the position.
The first questions do center on their starters and how effective they’ll be now that the team lacks a true safety net at the position. A year ago, the team had long-time veteran Asante Samuel in that role. Now Samuel is gone and the team will be reliant upon starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to rise to the occasion.
There is less question on whether Trufant can accomplish that task. Trufant is coming off a very promising rookie season where his play particularly down the stretch has many considering him one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant regularly displayed his ball skills and disruptive capabilities at the cornerback position, breaking up or intercepting a pass in 13 out of 16 games last season including nine consecutive games to open the season.
If there is any concern, it’s the fear against a sophomore slump for Trufant. Such slumps can be precarious because they typically are not caused by a significant downturn in play, but by the much higher expectations placed on a player after a successful rookie season. There’s no doubt that expectations are high for Trufant this year, and his play in camp will likely determine whether or not he’s set to meet them.
Opposite him will be Alford, who has a few more questions to answer. Alford supplanted Samuel down the stretch last year thanks to the team’s abysmal record leading the coaching staff to install a youth movement on defense. Alford had his fair share of bright spots, but also several head-scratching ones. A talented athlete, Alford still needs to refine the technical aspects of playing the cornerback position. He certainly has the talent to impact this year, particularly if he can balance some of his inevitable mistakes with big plays.
The Falcons have alternated Trufant and Alford on the left and right sides at points this offseason. Trufant played right corner as a rookie, with Alford filling in for Samuel on the left side down the stretch. Typically, the left corner is the team’s better player since most offenses are right-handed. It would make sense to move Trufant permanently to that side of the field, but the alternating reps suggests that the Falcons may tinker with the idea of using “shadow” corners this year. Meaning that they could play on either side depending on the individual matchup against an opposing wide receiver. While that method has yet to be used by the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith over the past six seasons, that was a regular part of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s defenses prior to his arrival in Atlanta in 2012. If Trufant and Alford continue to alternate sides as camp progresses, it may hint that the team plans to utilize the shadow corner once the regular season arrives as the defense incorporates more “Nolan-esque” tendencies.
Behind the starters are where most of the position’s questions center as the team’s nickel cornerback spot is unsettled. Robert McClain is the incumbent, having held the job for the past two seasons. McClain had a brilliant 2012 season where he was one of the league’s top nickel guys, but fell back to Earth last season. The team brought in free agents Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas to push him and give them insurance policies in case his play doesn’t pick back up.
McClain’s familiarity with the scheme and physicality should give him the edge in the battle for the nickel spot. Even if McClain manages to hold onto the job, with potentially two experienced nickels behind him, the leash will be a lot shorter if his play does not rebound in 2014.
Wilson is the more experienced candidate, but Arenas may have a better chance of unseating McClain. If for no other reason than the fact that Arenas was signed first in free agency, suggesting the team saw him as better commodity. Arenas is also two-and-a-half years younger than Wilson, indicating greater long-term potential. Arenas also offers valuable depth as a return specialist should wide receiver Devin Hester miss any time this season.
Even if McClain does not win the job, his ability to perform on special teams over the years almost assures him of a roster spot. He’s proven to be a versatile and capable player in most situations the Falcons have put him in, a valuable commodity even if he’s fourth or fifth on the depth chart. The same however cannot be said of Wilson and Arenas, who could essentially be competing for one roster spot.
One reason why the Falcons may opt against keeping both veterans is the presence of fifth-round draft pick Ricardo Allen. Allen shares many of the same traits that Wilson, Arenas and McClain have, with a similar, smaller frame that projects best tothe slot at the NFL level.
Allen’s chances of making the roster will be helped by his contract status. As a rookie, he’s operating under a four-year contract while McClain, Wilson and Arenas are each signed to one-year deals. The Falcons are invested in developing Allen long-term, while the other three veterans will each have to earn the opportunity to return in 2015 by their play this summer and into the season.
In all likelihood, Allen probably won’t play much beyond special teams this year, but he gives the team a developmental option down the road that could be in for a larger role next season. But Allen’s draft status won’t alone earn him a role, as he too will have to play his way onto the roster in camp.
Pushing for what appears only likely to be practice squad spots are Jordan Mabin and undrafted rookie Devonta Glover-Wright. Mabin spent last season on the Falcons’ practice squad and may not be eligible again since he spent much of 2012 on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad. While Mabin is not expected to really be in the mix for the nickel cornerback role, he has the potential to play his way into the conversation. Despite minimal reps in the preseason last summer, there was clearly something that the Falcons coaching staff liked to have been one of the three practice squad players to get re-signed by the team after the season.
Glover-Wright’s best avenue for making the team may come on special teams. An impressive athlete with blazing speed, he served as a wildcat quarterback for Utah State during his collegiate career. If he can translate that athletic upside and make a couple of plays in coverage as well as shine on special teams, he may have an outside shot of landing a roster spot. But in all likelihood, he’ll be destined for the practice squad where he can get a year to develop.
Additions like Wilson, Arenas and Allen should improve the team’s depth and insure that they get better play from the nickel spot this season. But more importantly, it’ll be on starters Trufant and Alford to also step up their play for the Falcons to get greater overall production from this position in 2014.