The Atlanta Falcons’ cornerback position was arguably the strength of a feeble defense in 2014, but it goes to show how much work needs to be done on that side of the ball since it’s likely to be a position of need headed into the offseason.
That need will likely come in the form of the Falcons trying to upgrade the play of the nickel cornerback spot. The Falcons will be looking for replacements for Robert McClain and Josh Wilson, who held the spot in 2014.
Under new head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons are expected to install a defensive scheme that prefers taller cornerbacks that will play a lot more press coverage. That emphasis on size won’t help McClain, Wilson or Javier Arenas, all of whom are 5’9″ and set to become free agents next week. McClain is the likeliest candidate to get a decent offer to stay with the team given his ability to contribute on special teams, which has been an area the Falcons have emphasized addressing early in free agency. However, the Falcons will likely replace McClain with a free-agent signing, likely drawing upon a pool of players that have recent experience playing for the Seattle Seahawks.
Chief among those is Byron Maxwell, who has started for the Seahawks the past two seasons. However the latest indicate that Maxwell is headed to the Philadelphia Eagles on a highly lucrative contract. While Maxwell certainly would have upgraded the Falcons cornerback position, his price tag would certainly make him a starter in Atlanta. And the Falcons may not need a starter due to the presence of Robert Alford.
Alford is slated to join Desmond Trufant as the team’s two starting cornerbacks this year, but the former’s hold on a starting position is much more tenuous. Alford is coming off a solid year, but one that he failed to complete due to a wrist injury sidelining him for the final six weeks. Alford began the year playing well, but hit a rough patch as the year went on. However, he should benefit from the new scheme being installed by Quinn.
Two of the bigger knocks on Alford coming out of Southeastern Louisiana two years ago, was his lack of polished technique and tendency to get “handsy” with receivers. Both those weaknesses could become strengths in Quinn’s scheme, which will feature more press and zone coverage. Thus, Alford’s tendency to want to lay his hands on opposing receivers should be beneficial, and the increased amount of zone will de-emphasize how important his technique is, since he won’t have to mirror receivers as much.
The Falcons might seek a free-agent addition that not only can upgrade the nickel spot, but also provide insurance as a potential starter in case Alford doesn’t make the necessary strides. The Falcons might look at ex-Seahawks Walter Thurmond and Ron Parker, who should be a bit more affordable than Maxwell and better suited to playing the nickel spot.
Thurmond filled that exact role with the Seahawks in 2013, prior to leaving to join the New York Giants. Thurmond is a capable player, but has really struggled to stay healthy over the course of his five-year NFL career. He yet to play a complete 16-game season and has missed an average of nine games per season, including 14 last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Parker was off and on the Seahawks’ roster for several seasons, until he was scooped up by the Kansas City Chiefs at the start of 2013. He played cornerback in Seattle, but was moved to safety in 2014 by the Chiefs due to an injury involving Eric Berry. Parker would likely return to his initial position if signed by the Falcons, but at least offers the versatility to play safety and potentially start for the team.
It’s likely that one of these players or another free agent will be signed by the Falcons to bolster their depth at cornerback, but it won’t be the last move the team makes. Because of the expected losses of three free agents, that is probably the exact number of players that the Falcons would like to add this offseason.
One of those three spots could potentially be filled by an in-house candidate in second-year safety Dezmen Southward. Southward spent the entirety of his college career at Wisconsin playing safety, but did get some work as a cornerback during Senior Bowl practices last year. Southward is fairly raw as a cornerback since he was only asked to play man coverage at Wisconsin during his senior year and had his fair share of struggles. But he does possess the size, length and speed to make the conversion for Quinn’s scheme. At best, he’d be considered a project at the position, but one worth potentially exploring as the fifth cornerback.
That would mean that the Falcons would need to add a fourth corner to the mix and one obvious avenue could come via the draft. Cornerback is unlikely to be a high priority come April’s draft unless the Falcons are unsuccessful at adding a nickel guy in free agency. But the need at the position could push the Falcons to draft a developmental player on the third day of the draft. Quinn’s teams in Seattle were highly successful in finding gems in that portion of the draft, as both Sherman and Maxwell were third-day selections.
Overall, the Falcons’ focus this offseason will be on bolstering their depth at the position and targeting more players that fit the scheme that Quinn is expected to employ. The Falcons are likely going to find several options both in free agency and the draft that will lead to success in doing so.