The Falcons got improved play from Dunta Robinson, while Asante Samuel seemed to make the loss of Brent Grimes much smoother. The Falcons even discovered a diamond in the rough with Robert McClain at the nickel cornerback position. All of those things make it seem like the cornerback position is a strength for the team, but it may not be.
Both starters Robinson and Samuel are on the wrong side of the age thirty. Samuel still is going strong and throughout the second half of the season was able to show his trademark ball skills. He’s still a liability when it comes to run support, but when you make as many game-changing plays as he does in coverage, it is forgivable. Robinson appears to be the opposite player. His first year in Mike Nolan’s scheme really brought out of his run support and blitzing abilities. But Robinson rarely makes plays in coverage, and is increasingly becoming a liability there with added age. He’s never been a player that has played with great technique or discipline, relying instead on his superior athleticism to match up with receivers. But as one gets older, that athleticism is one of the first things to go and Robinson appears to be in the midst of that. Robinson has a base salary of $8 million in 2013, and $3 million of that becomes guaranteed if he’s on the roster on the fifth day of the league year (March 16).
So the Falcons have a decision to make at right cornerback. They can keep Robinson, and hope that Father Time can be staved off for one more year. Another option might be to try and draft a young corner to become his replacement. Another option could be to sign a player to push or replace him as the starter.
Other things factor into that decision, mainly Brent Grimes. Grimes is a free agent coming off an Achilles tear, one of the more devastating injuries in football. It’s certainly possible Grimes could return for the start of next year, but it would be a question of how effective he would be at that point. But given the questions surrounding Grimes’ health status, it would be a major gamble to try and replace Robinson with him in 2013. If Grimes returns to Atlanta, it will likely have to come down to his price tag. A year ago, the Ne York Giants re-signed cornerback Terrell Thomas, who was coming off an ACL tear. The Giants gave Thomas a four-year deal that had only a small portion paid in the first year, with a big option bonus in the second year, essentially giving Thomas a year to prove whether he was worth retaining long-term. The best possible scenario for the Falcons is if they can get Grimes signed to a similar deal which would lower their risk factor.
The Falcons could reach out to other potential free agents that are younger and cheaper than Robinson on the open market, but given that the price tag of corners is often driven up, that doesn’t seem to be ideal.
The Falcons could draft a corner early in the draft, but given their needs at a number of other positions it probably wouldn’t be a priority and thus would have to wait until the third day of the draft. And at that point, you’re only getting a backup candidate rather than a potential starter.
The Falcons could tinker with inserting McClain into the starting lineup. McClain had a breakout year as the team’s nickel cornerback, but when he was asked to supplant either Robinson or Samuel, both of whom dealt with injuries this past year, he was far less effective. Given the long time it’s been since the Falcons have had a good nickel cornerback, the team probably doesn’t want to put too much on McClain’s plate next year. And given the age of Samuel, the smarter strategy may be to groom McClain to replace him in two years as opposed to replacing Robinson now. That way the team can allow McClain to develop some more. The Falcons have been burned multiple times in the past with putting too much trust in young, green corners after flashing a bit of promise. Chevis Jackson, Chris Owens, and Dominique Franks were at one point in time considered to be promising starters after good starts in Atlanta. But all three ultimately petered out to become average at best players.
Franks will be back next year and the team tinkered with him playing the role of a dime safety late. Franks struggled as a punt returner and being able to carve out of a bigger role on defense might be his only salvation when it comes to making the team next year.
Like Grimes, Chris Owens is also an unrestricted free agent this year. He’ll be considerably less expensive than other potential options. Owens is an effective stopgap option as an outside corner, has experience playing in the slot, and is one of the team’s better special teams players. That should all mean that he should be back in a Falcon uniform due to his depth value. But if not, then the odds increase dramatically that the team uses one of its picks this April at the position.
All this means that Robinson probably does return to the Falcons in 2013, just at a reduced price tag. But given the ages of Robinson and Samuel, the Falcons need to have long-term plans for replacing both sooner rather than later. McClain might fit the bill for one of those spots, but in the very near future the Falcons need to find someone that can do the same at the other. Owens and Franks are less than ideal options at this point, and Grimes’ status is up in the air.