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Free Agent Focus: Cornerback

February 14th, 2012

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Brent Grimes

This position is one of their biggest question marks entering the off-season. The Falcons will be in a position where the decisions they make here could really make or break their defensive success for years to come.

That decision is centered on whether they bring back Brent Grimes or opt to let him walk via free agency. Grimes is one of the few impact defenders on that side of the ball and based off that fact alone it should be a no-brainer to keep him. But the question isn’t that simple, as the factor of money plays a huge part in Grimes’ future in Atlanta.

Two years ago, the Falcons made Dunta Robinson one of the league’s highest paid corners by giving him a deal that averages $9.5 million a year and included $22.5 million in guaranteed money. That contract paid Robinson over $30 million in the first three years of his contract, paying him more money than what the Falcons gave to their top wideout Roddy White the previous summer.

Robinson was essentially paid to be a premier corner, the caliber of player that could take on the league’s best receivers, and not only contain them but potentially shut them down. But what has occurred in the time since is that Grimes has developed into that player. That became very obvious when he transformed into “Optimus Grimes” and contained the league’s premier receiver in Week 7′s win over Detroit.

So now the Falcons have a potential dilemma on their hands. If any player on this roster deserves to make Robinson’s salary, it is Grimes. But the Falcons don’t seem inclined to part ways with Robinson, thanks in large part to the minimal savings it would net towards this year’s salary cap. So the Falcons are essentially having to ask themselves the question: Can they afford to pay two guys that type of money?

And whether that answer is yes or no, will reflect whether or not Grimes is a Falcon in 2012.

And if the answer is no, then the Falcons defense could be in trouble. While Dominique Franks had his moments late in the season as an injury replacement for Grimes, he is still a very far cry from providing the caliber of skills that Grimes has over the past two years. And thus the Falcons are going to need to find more help at this position if they lose Grimes.

And if the Falcons are unwilling to pay a high premium for Grimes, it’s unlikely that they are going to get into bidding wars for the other top free agent corners on the market that include Cortland Finnegan, Carlos Rogers, Brandon Carr, Tracy Porter, and Terrell Thomas.

Instead, the Falcons will likely have to look at some bargain players. The chances that Kelvin Hayden returns will probably increase if Grimes departs. Players such as Kelly Jennings, Richard Marshall, Rashean Mathis, Jason Allen, and Will Allen are all available free agents that have past experience with members of this coaching staff. With the exception of Marshall, who is only 27, all of those guys are older veterans that can at least provide the team with a decent insurance policy in case Franks or Chris Owens aren’t ready to be the starter. But all would be short-term stopgaps at best, essentially no different than the team’s decision to sign Brian Williams a few years back.

Detroit’s Eric Wright, New York’s Aaron Ross, and Chicago’s Zack Bowman might also be worthwhile targets that will likely be allowed to test their markets by their respective teams.

Either way, it appears clear that the best option available remains Grimes. And while he could be one of the more expensive options, he’s a known commodity. But new DC Mike Nolan has generally shown a preference for bigger, more physical corners than Grimes, and thus might influence their decision to pass on keeping him under the expectation that he won’t be as good going forward in Nolan’s scheme as he has been in recent years under Brian VanGorder.

If the Falcons were to retain Grimes, then there would be little issue at this position. They could continue with Grimes and Robinson as the starters, and continue to develop Franks as the nickel corner with the hope that in the future he could develop into a capable starter. Re-signing Grimes makes things a lot easier on the team.

If not, then they will likely be looking for a stopgap for a year or so in the hopes that Franks takes a huge leap forward, Robinson starts to play up to his price tag, and/or buying them a year in the hopes that they can use a top pick on a corner in the 2013 draft. It’s a huge decision, and it really could color the outlook of this defense for years to come. If they keep Grimes, they should be fairly confident that it will stabilize the secondary for years to come, an area that has been a major weakness for the Falcons over the years. If not, then they are gambling that current players on their roster will step as well as hoping that they can find that stabilizing piece in future off-seasons.

As far as I see it, why roll the dice?

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