First off, let me point out ATLJBO’s excellent highlight video of Chris Owens on YouTube. Because this was what first put the nugget in my head that Owens would win the competition this year at cornerback. What probably stands out to you as you finish the clip, is how good Owens was against the run last year. He made several big hits and good tackles there. I also noticed this in the final weeks of the season when I was recently reviewing games for Moneyball.
This shouldn’t be underestimated. Over the years, tackling has become a lost art among cornerbacks and defensive backs in general. To the point that if and when you come across a corner that does it well, it makes him stand out. This is one of the reasons why the Falcons brass have been so keen on Dunta Robinson over the years.
I also noticed that the times when Owens was beat in coverage, it was largely due to poor footwork and sloppy technique. I believe that new assistant secondary coach Tim Lewis was indicating this when he was interviewed by the AJC back in February and talked specifically about improving these things. If Lewis is successful at getting these corners to improve their technique and footwork, then Owens stands to potentially benefit the most.
Thirdly, I think Owens will win the job because I’m not overly impressed with his competition. Brent Grimes finished last season well and I was certainly our best corner last year. But in looking at stats compiled by Pro Football Focus, he was also targeted the most on our team. When you look at the number of targets against him vs. the number of times he was lined up in coverage, Grimes was targeted on roughly 20% of his snaps. Tye Hill was second most on the team with around 18%. But every other Falcon corner their number was around 15-16%. That is not a huge difference, but over the course of a season those numbers can add up. It also indicates that opposing quarterbacks felt they could take advantage of Grimes somehow more than our other corners. Now there certainly were times when Grimes made them pay for this (6 interceptions), but I think the coaching staff probably recognizes that if Grimes were to be the starter it could be present a more tempting target than Owens.
The other competition is Brian Williams, technically the incumbent. But reports are that Williams will be limited early in camp. And depending on how long he’s limited could effectively take him out of the competition. As the Falcons get more looks at Grimes and Owens, they should begin to stand out from the competition.
Owens’ status as a drafted player certainly doesn’t hurt his chances. And while I don’t think the coaching staff is petty enough that they will start an undeserving player simply because he is/was a draft pick, there is no doubt that teams tend to give their own picks more opportunities. If for no other reason than trying to get out of them what they potentially saw in them that made them believe they merited being picked in the first place. And since neither Grimes or Williams were drafted by the Falcons, this gives Owens a slight edge.
Now I don’t think that Grimes will give up the starting job without a fight. He has shined the past two summers in workouts and camp, and I don’t expect this year to be any different. But for two seasons now, the Falcons have seen what Grimes brings to the table in the regular season after relatively good summers. It is probably time to give some new blood like Owens a chance. And I think because of the reasons I laid out above, if the competition is close then Owens will ultimately get the nod.