A little more than ten months ago, a lot of expectations were heaped onto cornerback Chris Owens. And Owens failed to live up to those expectations in 2010.
Last summer, Owens was expected to compete for a starting job, but Brent Grimes did not relent and did not look back. While Owens struggled, Grimes flourished as a starter and made his first Pro Bowl. Owens began the season as the team’s nickel back and slot corner, but he did not play at a particularly high level through the first six weeks of the season. Then with Dunta Robinson out in Week 7 due to a concussion, Owens was thrust into the spotlight as a starter. And he had one of the poorest performances from a Falcons corner in recent memory. So bad that it made Tye Hill and Chris Houston’s heads spin. And it did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff, as Owens was benched in favor of the declining veteran Brian Williams. But with Williams out against the Packers in the playoffs, Owens was again thrust back into the spotlight, and he once again came up wanting.
This summer, Owens is the incumbent at the nickel spot with Williams not expected to be re-signed. The team did not add a cornerback in the draft, and doing so in free agency does not look quite so promising given the current state of the labor situation. Owens won’t be handed the job, as he’s expected to be pushed by last year’s fifth round pick Dominique Franks.
Owens has a chance at redemption if he can show some mental toughness and get over his struggles a year ago. Corners must have a short memory by nature of their position, and Owens needs to flex that. He struggled at times during his rookie season because of sloppy technique and footwork, and it did not look as if those things had improved a year later. It is now time for those areas to improve if he wants to be a Falcon for much longer.
Even if Franks is unable to unseat him from his nickel spot, there will be a short leash on Owens. The Falcons won’t wait until there is a Bengals-esque meltdown like last year to pull the plug. If Owens cannot pull his weight early on, then the Falcons will be forced to make a move.
The league has evolved to a passing-oriented league, and your nickel cornerback often times has to be as good as your other two starters. The nickel corner plays about half of the defensive snaps, essentially splitting duties with the third linebacker. The Falcons did choose to address that spot by taking Akeem Dent in the third round of this April’s draft, which shows some confidence in Owens.
And that confidence isn’t completely misplaced. As mentioned almost a year ago, Owens has some skill that is worth developing. He is tough against the run, and if he can improve his technique, footwork, and awareness, he does have the tools to be a competent if not good nickel cornerback. Brent Grimes also struggled with those same issues early in his career, and it did not take until his fourth year in the league (2009) to really start to shake those issues. Owens is entering his third year, so there is still reason to be somewhat hopeful.
But the Falcons also need to have a contingency plan in place in case Owens does not make the necessary strides. Franks might be that option, but he’s had very little experience playing in the slot and it remains to be seen if he’s a better option or just more of the same. He had very little work on defense as a rookie, and while he has impressive ball skills, also showed similar lapses in concentration during his major exposure last summer. Will he be ready? Who knows.
It would not be surprising if the Falcons were to make a call to Brian Williams at some point this September to see if he’s ready. He’s been working out with his teammates this spring to stay in shape and be ready if any NFL team should call to bring him back for his tenth NFL season.