Brent Grimes is gone. Falcon fans should lament, although I’ve seen quite a few that are not. Are the Falcons defense doomed without Grimes? No. But they will miss him. How much remains to be seen. It seems very likely that cornerback will be one of the team’s top two picks in this year’s draft.
Will that mean that the Falcons won’t sign another player between now and then to help them at cornerback? No. I think it is possible, although I’m not sure I’d say it’s a likelihood. What is a likelihood is that the Falcons will let the market come to them. We haven’t received the details of Osi Umenyiora’s contract yet. But it was reported that $5 million of his deal was guaranteed, and according to other reports that encompassed his first-year salary. Given the way that the Falcons usually negotiate their contracts, it’s likely that guaranteed money includes his first-year base salary as well as an initial signing bonus. How that breaks up is unknown, but more than likely it will result in a cap hit in 2013 that is between $3 and $4 million. Regardless of where it falls on that spectrum, it means that the Falcons cap situation is relatively tight. I’ve calculated that if the Falcons don’t trade any of their picks, they will need roughly $5.65 million to sign all of them. From the cap numbers I have, if Umenyiora’s 2013 cap hit is $3.5 million, that gives the Falcons roughly $3.5 million in cap space for the season. Not enough to sign the rookies.
Now after the draft the Falcons will almost certainly get to work on extending Matt Ryan’s contract. When that deal is done, that should give the team at least $5-6 million in cap space, giving them them enough to sign their rookies and also have some room left over as insurance in the event of injuries. But in the mean time, the Falcons will likely be frugal with their spending. And that will likely result in the Falcons letting the cornerback market come to them. They probably won’t make huge efforts to pursue any free agent corners between now and the draft. But if some come to them at the right terms, then I believe we should see the Falcons add a veteran stopgap at cornerback before the draft. The right terms likely will be a one-year, veteran minimum deal that will include a very modest signing bonus (less than $100,000). If a veteran corner is willing to accept such terms, then he may be a Falcon. If not, then the Falcons will be content to try and answer their problems at the position solely via the draft.
Now back to replacing Grimes…
Will the Falcons likely find a replacement for Grimes in the first two rounds that will give as much value as Grimes did in 2010 and 2011? No. Using a simple five-tiered draft grading system that I will discuss in greater detail in future columns, the chances of that happening are about 1 in 7. I looked back over the past 10 years of drafts, but then dismissed the past two because it’s too early to judge those players, and specifically at corners that were drafted between picks 25 and 64. And 6 out of 41 (roughly 1 in 7) turned into a quality starter, which would be considered a No. 1 corner relative to the position. Those players include Nnamdi Asomugha, Chris Gamble, Charles Tillman, Brandon Flowers, Rashean Mathis, and Corey Webster. About half the corners turned into capable starters, which includes players like Vontae Davis, Eric Wright, Josh Williams, Tim Jennings, Bryant McFadden, and Chris Houston. So it’s a good bet that whoever the Falcons draft at cornerback will be at least as good as Houston was in Atlanta.
Given that Grimes is coming off an Achilles injury, many have surmised that he would be a diminished player going forward. That definitely makes sense, but is not a guarantee. Bengals corner Leon Hall suffered a torn Achilles in November 2011, and throughout the ensuing off-season he was considered to be ahead of schedule on his rehab. When training camp opened for Cincinnati at the end of July, Hall was healthy, but was limited as the team didn’t want to rush him back eight months after the injury. He was still nursing “calf” injuries in Weeks 3 and 4 this past season. But what is interesting about Hall is that he was a top corner pre-injury, and returned in better form post-injury. According to Pro Football Focus, Hall graded out as a 2.2 overall in 2011 with a 3.0 coverage grade on 557 total plays. In 2012, his overall grade was 8.8 and had a 7.2 coverage grade on 982 snaps.
Now what does that mean for Grimes? Nothing. Grimes could have returned and had a productive 2013 season, or not. But don’t automatically assume that he was “done” due to the injury. Sure, Hall suffered his torn Achilles a month before he turned 27, while Grimes went down a few months after his 29th birthday. Could that have made a difference? Absolutely. But it’s an answer we’ll never truly know. Grimes may go onto be successful in Miami or not. It won’t be quite as applicable to whether he would have been successful here in Atlanta this year.
All that really matters is that the player the Falcons choose to replace him at the other corner comes in and performs at a high level. If that happens, it won’t matter how good or bad Grimes is in Miami or could have been in Atlanta according to our own speculation.
On Matt Ryan’s contract…
Tony Romo signed a big contract this past week. But it likely won’t affect on Ryan’s new deal too much. Joe Flacco’s deal will be the template for Ryan, not Romo. But the gawdy initial numbers were a bit overstated. Romo’s deal didn’t include $55 million guaranteed, but in fact is really $40 million guaranteed. But more importantly, Romo’s deal is basically a three-year deal worth $57 million. Ryan’s three-year totals will likely exceed $60 million, more in line with the $62 million that Flacco will make over the next three years. That number is important because more than likely the entirety of the new deal won’t be played out. If things work out for Ryan and the Falcons, then it will likely go a similar route as the Tom Brady contracts in New England. Brady first had his rookie contract reworked in August 2002 to give him a pay raise and a few more years added on the back-end. That was modified again in May 2005, September 2010, and finally most recently in February. Years are added on the back-end at premium prices, but the immediate cap hits were lowered. If it does not work out, then the Falcons would be able to get out of the deal after the third year, albeit with the expectation that they would need to eat a significant amount of dead money. The same applies for Flacco in Baltimore as well as Romo in Dallas.
Ryan’s new deal is likely to become the priority of the Falcons post-draft because as mentioned before, it will likely be necessary in order for the Falcons to get all of their rookies signed. The contract that Falcon fans need to pay attention to is that of Aaron Rodgers, which could be coming down the pipeline sooner rather than later. I’d be surprised if a Ryan deal gets done before Rodgers gets a new contract. It’s expected Rodgers deal will exceed that of Flacco’s. And I believe Rodgers’ new deal will represent the upper parameters of Ryan’s contract, which may exceed Flacco. So let’s hope for the sake of Arthur Blank’s wallet that Ryan doesn’t get the $25 million per year that some are estimating he could get. Such a high price tag could likely extend negotiations deep into the summer as opposed to something that could be worked out by Memorial Day.