The Falcons have achieved some stability over the years at corner, but they’re in the process of retooling perhaps their most talented group.
Cornerback has been one of the true priorities of the current regime. When you look at total dollars and draft picks spent on corner, it stacks up against most any position you can think of, and probably exceeds every single other position on defense.
What have the Falcons gotten for that investment? A couple of Pro Bowl caliber players, some players with bright futures, and a whole bunch of solid but unspectacular players who held down their positions for multiple years. The Falcons have, by virtue of their attention and prioritization, consistently put at least solid players out there at corner, but aside from their amazing luck unearthing Brent Grimes early on in the run, they’ve done their best work over the last six years or so.
This is a particularly timely time to look at this because the Falcons are about to undergo their most radical shift at cornerback in a half-decade, having cleaned out a pair of starters to replace them with last year’s second round pick, a guy who played safety at a Pro Bowl level in 2018, and potentially a pair of Day 3 2019 rookies.
Let’s look at the last decade-plus.
The Falcons were absurdly fortunate to have Brent Grimes, that rare undrafted free agent cornerback who turned into something special. We’re reaching the twilight years of his career now, but he was good-to-spectacular from 2008-2011 before an injury robbed him of the Giants playoff game that year and basically his entire season in 2012, after which point the team moved on. The team’s complements to Grimes in that era weren’t quite as inspiring, with Chris Houston turning in a couple of okay seasons, Dunta Robinson getting paid for three solid-to-shaky seasons, and Chris Owens offering speed and physicality but not a lot of inspiring coverage over four years in Atlanta.
The team managed to snag Asante Samuel, who was perhaps their best cornerback in both 2012 and 2013, but he was always going to be more of a short-term solution given his age at that point. The Falcons had invested significant draft capital and free agent dollars into the position at this point—Chris Owens and Chevis Jackson were third rounders, and Dunta’s contract was pretty massive at the time—and they exited the 2012 season with only Robert McClain looking like a long-term option.
The decision to invest not one but two early round picks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alfordturned out to be one of the few great moves of the late Mike Smith era, joining the additions of Jake Matthews and Devonta Freeman in that rare stratosphere. Trufant and Alford would essentially spend the majority of the next five seasons starting next to one another, and while there were rough patches along the way, they gave the team stability and talent at their top two spots that teams would kill for. Heck, the team has mostly had stability even at their nickel spot, with either Robert McClain or Brian Poole holding down that spot in six of the last seven seasons.
While the Falcons just enjoyed a period of stability and relative success at cornerback, though, they’re heading for major changes. An injured Robert Alford had a rough 2018 season and was cut, and the Falcons somewhat surprisingly elected to let Poole go to roll with Trufant, Isaiah Oliver, and Damontae Kazee at their top three spots, with two rookies now also in the mix. We’ll just hope the next epoch of Falcons cornerbacking will be as stable—and perhaps even better—than the one we’re leaving.