ATLANTA - AUGUST 19: Punt returner Dominique Franks #24 of the Atlanta Falcons is tackled by cornerback Terrence Wheatley #22 of the New England Patriots during the preseason game at the Georgia Dome on August 19 2010 in Atlanta Georgia. The Patriots beat the Falcons 28-10. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
I'll be hurriedly sifting through a handful of key camp battles before we get to the pre-season. You might have to jog a little to keep up.
Today's battle involves the team's nickel cornerback combat, which has already reached "oft-discussed" status around the Interwebs. It pairs a talented cornerback who still had third-degree burns from the Packers game against a punishing tackler who has very little in-game experience at the NFL level. At this point, neither are a threat to the starting tandem of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes.
After the jump, let's meet our gridiron gladiators.
If the Falcons were the kind of team that offered positions based solely on experience, Owens would get it. Of course, Mike Smith's middle name is Merit, so that's not going to happen.
Still just 24, Owens remains a sure tackler and a quality part-time cornerback. When he got some run his rookie season, he actually did very well, accounting for three pass deflections, two picks and one very memorable game where he made Terrell Owens look like an old fool.
Given that, he's locked in to a roster spot. Yet he has to be considered the underdog in this training camp battle, for a couple of reasons.
- The Green Bay game. One game shouldn't necessarily determine a player's fortunes, but Owens was spectacularly bad against the Packers. His coverage was, to put it mildly, abysmal. For that reason, he remains the face of that horrible loss among fans, and whether the coaching staff likes to admit it or not, their faith in his abilities had to be a little shaken.
He never seized the nickel spot last year. Despite real opportunities to do so, Owens needed an injury to Brian Williams to take over nickel duties. While there he still tackled well, but his coverage was never so good that you knew he belonged there. By all accounts, he's not exactly seizing it in camp, either. For Owens, talent is still outpacing production.
For the record, I think Owens is a valuable player, and I don't think his confidence is too badly dented by the Packers game. But even though I think he'd be up to the nickel role, he's going to need a very impressive showing to get it. Them's the breaks.
Speaking of impressive showings...
Franks has been tearing it up at camp so far, flashing soft hands to go with his well-regarded tackling skills. That's a fancy way of saying young Franks hits like a train carrying a load of bricks.
The biggest hurdle for Franks is a lack of real game experience. In very limited snaps in 2010, he managed to pick a pass and get one tackle, so you know he's capable of something. But I suspect even the coaching staff isn't entirely sure how he's going to look matching up against a slot receiver for an entire game. The only way to find out, of course, is to play him.
I think he'll win the job. Franks has immense physical talent and seems like a humble, can-do kind of guy, which the Falcons always love. While there's no guarantee he's better at coverage than Owens, by all accounts he's shining in that aspect of his game in practices. If he can do well in pre-season action—and he's going to get plenty—then he's got the inside track.
I still see Franks as a future starter, too, so it would be a nice first step for him. Owens will still have considerable value as a fourth cornerback.
What do you all think? Owens or Franks?