Falcons FA Focus: Cornerback

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Brent Grimes

I know I should have posted this article over two weeks ago, but other projects distracted me. The Falcons released Dunta Robinson and now have an obvious opening at the cornerback position. The Falcons cut Robinson because of his high price tag and diminishing returns. While Robinson was able to blossom in some areas under Mike Nolan, becoming a highly valuable run defender and blitzer off the edge last year, he continued to struggle in coverage. Robinson just didn’t make enough plays in coverage, which likely means that the Falcons will want a corner with better ball skills to replace him. They have one potentially hitting the open market in Brent Grimes.

The first decision the Falcons have to make is whether or not they will re-sign him. The team is optimistic about Grimes’ return from his torn Achilles suffered on opening day last season. So it doesn’t sound like injury is going to deter them from making an offer. Whether Grimes returns really is going to come down to money. Grimes didn’t get the big contract he was seeking last year, and fresh off an Achilles tear is probably not poised to get one this year. Teams tend to get skittish about guaranteeing money when players wind up injured at the end of two consecutive years.

If the Falcons and Grimes don’t agree on a new deal, then the Falcons will have plenty of other options on the open market. While there aren’t a lot of top-level cornerbacks, there are plenty that are capable starters and role players.

A big name that jumps out is Sean Smith (Dolphins). Smith played under MIke Nolan for two years in Miami, and has the sort of size and physicality that work well in Nolan’s aggressive blitzing scheme due to his ability to play press man coverage. His familiarity with Nolan should also mean that the transition to the scheme will be minimal. The problem with Smith, is that despite the fact that he has great size, he’s an underwhelming run support corner. He also doesn’t have great ball skills similar to Robinson. But Smith would be a good option to help the Falcons do a better job matching up with tight ends. He has the size and athleticism to be able to line up against players like Aaron Hernandez, Vernon Davis, and Jimmy Graham.

Ex-Falcon Chris Houston, now with the Detroit Lions, is also a free agent. It doesn’t seem likely that the Falcons will try to recruit Houston back to Atlanta.

Baltimore’s Cary Williams is another one of the better players on the market. Williams is a capable No. 2 corner that has many similar skills as Robinson. He is an active run defender, but possesses better ball skills than Robinson. But Williams is not a lockdown corner, and not always consistent. He’s an upgrade over what Robinson provided, but not likely for the price he’ll command.

Williams is like most of the free agent corners hitting the market. Many are capable No. 2 corners, but are overmatched against the premium receivers in the league. There’s nothing wrong with those players, but you don’t want to play top dollar for them. Essentially that is what the Falcons did when they signed Robinson three years ago. If you can find No. 2 corners that are willing to be paid like No. 2 corners then it is a worthwhile investment.

That probably means that players like Mike Jenkins (Cowboys), Keenan Lewis (Steelers), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Eagles), and Antoine Cason (Chargers) might not be on the Falcnos radar. There are also veterans that could be decent one-year fixes like Terence Newman (Bengals) and Quentin Jammer (Chargers), but it would make sense for the Falcons to try and get younger at this position.

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Sean Smith

Kyle Arrington (Patriots), Bradley Fletcher (Rams), Greg Toler (Cardinals), and Darius Butler (Colts) might be good options for the Falcons. Toler just turned 28, but the others are all 26 years old. None are ideal starters and best coming off the bench as nickel corners. But all have flashed enough skill to think they could be valuable to the Falcons if signed.

Arrington and Butler both have experience playing in the slot, where Robert McClain currently plays. McClain is coming off a really strong first season with the Falcons manning the slot and flashed enough upside to think he could be developed into a starter on the outsider. But the Falcons probably don’t want to resort to starting him this year because it might mean his play in the slot could diminish. Adding a player like Arrington or Butler could give them good depth there. Butler is not an ideal slot corner, but was effective at times last year for the Colts. Arrington has produced and between the two is probably the more capable starter on the outside. Arrington has never been great starter, but is decent and willing to defend the run.

Fletcher and Toler both possess good size. Fletcher has a good long frame that could make him a valuable press corner. But he’s struggled with durability concerns in the past (21 missed games in his first three seasons) and was benched late last year by the Rams after a poor performance against the Patriots. He could be a nice reclamation project at the right price. Toler had a nice season as the nickel corner, but may not be a great starting option. He had an inconsistent season in 2010 as a starter, then missed all of 2011 with an injury. Toler doesn’t possess ideal quickness to match up in man coverage against top receivers.

A player like Leodis McKelvin (Bills) could be a good add for the Falcons because of his explosive speed and ability in the return game. But McKelvin is not a particularly skilled corner, he’s mainly just fast. While he can add depth on defense, it’s probably not a good bet that he comes to Atlanta and starts to live up to his billing as a former first round pick.

Tracy Porter would be an interesting roll of the die. He had a poor first year in Denver due mainly to injury after a steady career with the Saints. Porter is certainly familiar with the division, and at points during his stint in New Orleans was considered one of the better No. 2 corners in the league. He could be a nice reclamation project if the Falcons sign off on his medical issues.

Brice McCain (Texans) is an experienced slot corner, that could be a decent option if the Falcons want to move McClain outside. McCain isn’t great, just closer to serviceable slot corner.

Another player that the Falcons might want to look at is William Middleton. He was a fifth round pick of the Falcons back in 2009 and was put on the practice squad. He joined the Jaguars off the Falcons’ practice squad early in the 2009 and has since become a valuable role player fort them. Middleton wouldn’t be expected to replace Robinson as a potential starter. But what he could be is a nice option to challenge Dominique Franks for the role of dime back.

The Falcons tinkered with more dime looks late in the year, when injuries depleted their depth. Dominique Franks drew the assignment and did alright. Last year, the concept of the “big nickel” was being tossed about quite a bit. This is essentially an extension of that concept and Middleton could help there. While competent in coverage, he’s even better in run support and is the sort of tweener player that can work in that role. He could be brought in to compete with Franks.

The Falcons definitely have options this off-season at cornerback, including the draft as they may deem that the best corners are available during the first two days of the draft. But between now and then, it might be smart to sign an insurance policy. Chris Owens is also a free agent, and has shown himself to be a capable outside corner when the team has been in a pinch. While I think the Falcons will try and re-sign Owens, he should be only a last resort when it comes to replacing Robinson as a potential starter. He shouldn’t enter this summer’s training camp higher than fourth on the depth chart.

The key will be getting the most bang for their buck. Who that winds up being is anybody’s guess, but as of right now I think the first choice should be Grimes. If not him, then Fletcher and Arrington present probably the best upside and value, respectively, among the cheaper options. Of the pricier players, I think Smith has some intrigue because of his potential to match up with tight ends. But too much of his game reminds me of Robinson, and he may not possess the playmaking skills nor the toughness you want in the new starter.

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Aaron Freeman
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