Finding the Fit: Cornerback
As stated in the defensive end section, the Falcons pass defense was among the worst in the league. And arguably as big a reason for that as the lack of a strong pass rush was the poor coverage displayed throughout the year by the team’s cornerbacks.
Brian Williams was the team’s best corner last year, but he got hurt in Week 6 matchup vs. the Bears. And at his age (31 in July), coming off a knee injury, it remains to be seen if Williams can be considered a reliable option as a starter this year. We’ll likely find out just based on whether the Falcons re-sign him as a free agent and how big a contract they give him.
At the other spot is Chris Houston who missed most of the end of the season due to injury. But Houston had an up and down, that was a lot more down than up. And he has yet to take his game to the next level as a consistent and reliable cover man since Smith & Co. took over. So it’s doubtful the team will hold out too much hope that changes in 2010.
In Houston and Williams absence, two young corners emerged as arguably the team’s best moving forward: Brent Grimes and Chris Owens. Both are short, but have good speed, and instincts to make plays. But it remains to be seen if the Falcons can afford to start two 5’9″ corners.
Also on the roster is Chevis Jackson and Tye Hill. Jackson had a promising rookie year, but took a step back this past year. He struggled in man coverage, and now there are questions about whether he has the hips and quickness to get better. Hill is another undersized corner that had a brief flirtation as a starter, but too many mental mistakes ended that experiment rather swiftly.
The Falcons truly lack a No. 1 corner that can go up against the top receivers and the league and match up. And not a single player on the roster appears to have the upside to become that player.
And the Falcons will likely target players at this position that can come in right away and compete as starters, rather than adding more depth that they hope can develop as starters down the road.
1. Size – Because of Owens and Grimes’ short statures, the team will want to add a corner that brings some size to the table and stands a better chance with matching up against the big receivers that populate the league. He doesn’t need to be 6’2″, but probably will target guys that are 5’11” and bigger.
2. Speed - The Falcons three biggest corners right now struggle when they match up with speed. So if/when the Falcons add another big guy to the mix
3. Ball Skills/Instincts – This player should be able to play the ball and make plays there, something that Chris Houston has really struggled with during his short Falcon career. Owens and Grimes finished strong because they arguably have better ball skills than either Williams or Houston.
4. Tackling – Houston had his struggles in run support, as did Grimes. So the Falcons aren’t going to be targeting anybody that is perceived as soft vs. the run.
The top corner in this class is Joe Haden (Florida), but he’s going to be long gone by the time the Falcons pick. The next mostly highly rated guy on many boards will be Earl Thomas (Texas). Thomas is a tweener at corner and safety. He has a corner’s size, but a safety’s toughness. But he too figures to be off the board by the time the Falcons pick. Both players grade highly in all the areas that the Falcons want in a corner.
After those two players there is a jumble of quality corners, and the Falcons will likely spend much of the next month or so trying to distinguish between them. Most have one of the following three ranked next: Patrick Robinson (Florida State), Kyle Wilson (Boise State), or Kareem Jackson (Alabama).
Robinson has a lot of athleticism and upside. He’s fast, can be tough at times vs. the run, and was a feared playmaker for the Seminole defense, and often went unchallenged against quality opponents. But the few times he was challenged, he gave up plays. And people question his consistency, and whether he is as detailed oriented as he needs to be to excel at the next level. In many ways, that mirrors Chris Houston in that he’s a boom/bust prospect.
Kyle Wilson is a bit of the opposite, in that he has good footwork, ball skills, and is very good in run support. But Wilson doesn’t have great size and his speed can be questionable at times. So it’s less a question of whether Wilson will be a good pro, but how good a pro.
Jackson was the top cover guy for Alabama’s defense. He has good hips, footwork, speed, and ball skills, and is capable in run support. There are very few flaws in his game, so he might be the best of both worlds.
Another prospect that should be on the Falcons radar because he possesses size and speed in spades is Oklahoma State’s Perrish Cox. But at this point, that’s really all their is to Cox’s game. His footwork needs improvement, and he’s not as physical vs. the run as a player his size should be. He has loads of upside, but he’s going to need to be coached up.
Dominique Franks (Oklahoma) is another big corner that has good hips and speed that figures to be in the late first round mix. He too needs some more polish.
After that, there tend to be developmental options. Chris Cook (Virginia) has great size, but is a bit of a tweener at corner and safety. He could excel in press coverage. Jerome Murphy (South Florida) is inconsistent in coverage, but excels in run support, which may make him a tweener as well. Amari Spievey (Iowa), Brandon Ghee (Wake Forest), and Donovan Warren (Michigan) are all 6′ or taller, but all probably would work best in a zone-heavy scheme, and have had their issues in man coverage. The same could be said of Devin McCourty (Rutgers). Walter Thurmond (Oregon) might be another option, but tore his ACL this past season. He entered the year with first round potential, but his injury has caused him to drop on boards. Another player that sort of fits the Falcons mold is Northwestern’s Sherrick McManis, but he’s not as fast as you’d want, and is just a mid-round prospect.
The Final Verdict
Obviously if either Haden or Thomas were to fall to the Falcons, they would be solid picks. Of the others, probably Wilson and Jackson fit the best in Atlanta. There isn’t a lot of difference between the two. I think Wilson will be a better run defender in the pros, but I think Jackson will do a better job defending the deep pass.
Wilson probably grades out slightly ahead of Jackson because of the possibility he may have a faster 40 and he is also an accomplished punt returner. But Jackson playing at a bigger school against better competition might also give him the edge. They are essentially 1A and 1B when it comes to corner, and their workouts between now and April will likely determine who moves up on the Falcons board ahead of the other.
The other corners might have greater upside, but also have great risk when it comes to their develop. While Robinson and Cox will also get high grades because of that potential, their play is often too inconsistent and sloppy to expect that they will be ranked over Wilson or Jackson on the Falcons board. The Falcons have seen that type of player already with Chris Houston, and Smith and Dimitroff have already shown their preference for productive, high character players with the selections of Owens and Jackson in the past two drafts.
If the Falcons were to try and wait in the draft, then I think Ghee or Spievey would be the best fits as potential third rounders. Ghee is better in run support, while Spievey is a more polished in coverage.