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The Great Falcons Roster Breakdown: Cornerbacks And Safeties Edition

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We're almost to the end of this little series of breakdowns. I hope that it's changed your life forever, because frankly, that's why we're writing them.

Obviously, cornerback and safety is a polarizing position on the Falcons' roster. You need look no further than Brian Williams, the savvy veteran cornerback who split our camp between those who thought Brian Williams was our best cornerback and those who thought he was our worst. Either way, it has inspired a lot of debate in the last couple of years, and that's something fans thrive on them. We owe them our discussions, if not our gratitude for those passes that sailed way the hell over those heads.

To break down this controversial position, I have enlisted the lovely and talented orang3b, who you may know as "that guy who uses a lot of stats." He'll be followed by yours truly, Dave "The Falconer" Choate, a guy who has tried to pitch in on every single one of these. Frankly, the effect on my sanity has been troubling.

Follow after the jump to see what this dynamic duo has to say.

orang3b says:

2009 Grades

Cornerbacks:

Chris Houston – The man that everybody loved to hate. While I was one of his biggest defenders, Houston really had a disappointing season in 2009. His improvements from 2007 to 2008, plus other factors (like his high number of Passes Defensed) made me think he was on the verge of a breakout type year. Instead, he took a step back. His Completion Percentage Allowed shot way up (57.0% in ’08; 66.7% in ’09). Interestingly, his Yards per Completion Allowed was actually slightly better (13.3 in ’08; 12.0 in ’09) – mostly owed to his fantastic YAC number (Football Outsiders has him as the #3 CB in YAC Allowed. The biggie though, was the fact that he was #64 (of 70) in FBO’s Success Rate, meaning he was giving up the important completions – the ones allowing opponents to convert 3rd downs into 1st downs. Grade: C-

Brian Williams – Some people think we lost our best Cornerback when he got hurt against the Bears. I disagree. He simply was not good last year. Just go back and watch the highlights from Week 2 (CAR) or Week 3 (NE). Yes, opposing QB’s Yards per Attempt skyrocketed from 6.94 YPA all the way to 8.13 YPA after he went on IR. But the team faced a much tougher slate of Passing Offenses after that point – five Top 12 teams in Passing DVOA, counting the Saints twice (all losses). Once the schedule eased up (NYJ, BUF, TB), the Pass Defense suddenly looked good again. The injury to Brian Williams was not the reason the Defense fell apart. Grade: D+

Brent Grimes – Really, I have no idea how to grade Grimes. He ended up with 6 INT’s, plenty of highlights, and the best charting numbers of any Cornerback on the team. He also looked thoroughly confused on his assignments plenty of times, had the most Missed Tackles of the team’s D-backs (10), was picked on by opposing QB’s (highest Target Percentage of team’s CB’s) and was yanked in and out of the line-up by the coaches. But his fairly good overall charting numbers, combined with low expectations and league minimum salary ($385,000) make me want to bump this a bit higher than I originally intended. He certainly provided plenty of bang for the buck. Grade: A-

Christopher Owens – He’s a big bundle of potential and promise. He only got significant snaps starting in Week 12, but generally handled himself well when he finally got his chance. He had a very good Completion Percentage allowed (56.0%), but his Yards per Completion allowed was higher than you’d want (even if you exclude the 65 yard TD against the Jets). A pretty good showing from a 3rd Round Rookie, if you ask me. Grade: B

Chevis Jackson – He had a specific role, and he did it well. His numbers from PFF don’t look like anything special (72.7% Completion Percentage Allowed; 9.0 Yards per Completion – shorter because he was always in the slot), but consider that he was tied (with Nnamdi Asomugha) for the best Stop Rate on completed passes. Basically, the polar opposite of Houston – he was making his tackles just short of the sticks on third and long. Grade: B+

Tye Hill – Though it was no fault of his own, he was set up to be a disappointment before he even stepped onto the field. Considering the fact that Dimitroff similarly stole Domonique Foxworth away for a 7th Round pick just a year earlier, then add in the fact that he was a former 1st Round pick himself, we as Falcons fans had unrealistically high expectations for Hill. What was his fault, though, was his terrible play when he finally did make it onto the field. I can understand bringing him along slowly – Foxworth also didn’t get major playing time until Week 8 in 2008 – but he was easily the team’s worst Cornerback last year (and that’s saying something, considering this ragtag bunch). His low point was Week 12 against Tampa Bay, when he allowed a 38 yard completion and a 42 yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant on back-to-back plays in the 2nd Quarter. That’s right; the Bucs went from 1st & 10 on their own 20 to dancing in the end zone in just two plays. Hill didn’t get back on the field in that game, and only played 11 more snaps the entire season. Grade: F

Safeties:

Thomas DeCoud – Simply a revelation. By my charting, he didn’t allow a completed pass until the 2nd Quarter of Week 5 (PFF said he allowed a catch in Week 2 to Steve Smith; I blamed it on Brian Williams). Of Safeties that played 60% of their team’s snaps, he was #11 (of 55) in Completion Percentage Allowed. Because he was usually playing deep though, when he was beaten, he was really beaten (19.0 Yards per Completion Allowed, with only a 7% Stop Rate on Completed Passes --PFF grades him even better in Run Support, though. He was the #6 Safety in their Tackling Inefficiency Rating (he didn’t miss many tackles – Coleman was also in the Top 25). And we all remember his delayed blitz Sack of Brees in the MNF game in New Orleans, where he caused a fumble that Biermann picked up and waltzed into the endzone. Before the season, we were wondering if he was going to even be a starter; by the end, Coach Smith was calling him the Defensive MVP. Not bad. Grade: A

Erik Coleman – He was great in Run Defense, with 31 total Stops (#6 Safety) and a 35% Stop Rate (Stops per Solo Tackle – #14 Safety), according to PFF (I’m not 100% sure what their definition of a Stop is, other than "offensive failure"). But he was borderline terrible in coverage – 6 TD’s allowed (worst on the team, and tied for the worst Safety in the league). Pass Defense is so much more important than Run Defense in today’s NFL that I had to dock him some. This is the second year in a row his overall numbers have been below average, and the team really needs William Moore to be ready to challenge him for the starting spot. Grade: C-

William MooreGrade: Incomplete

Dave Choate says:

Coming into 2009, I thought our secondary was the weakest link on the entire roster. In 2010, you can still make that argument again. Should you? Not if you're a betting man.

Why, you ask? Read on.

Cornerbacks

CB Dunta Robinson, Starter: This is a tough one, because my experience with Dunta Robinson is limited. What the numbers tell us, however, is painfully obvious.

Robinson appears to be a cornerback in decline. You can argue that factors such as motivation, injury and defensive scheming were what sapped him of his effectiveness, and that the Falcons will be able to address those issues. Maybe you're right, and maybe you should get out of my head!

But somehow I don't think so. Somehow, I can't shake the nagging feeling that Dunta Robinson is never going to be an elite option again. I can't convince myself that Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith have suddenly developed an inability to judge talent, so I must assume that they view him as a stopgap top option and a long-term solid starter. He just doesn't have the tackle numbers and especially the interception numbers over the last few years to be considered as anything more than that.

Because he hasn't played a snap for the Falcons yet, I'm going to give him a grade of incomplete. I hope he exceeds my expectations by a long shot, but right now I think we need to temper what we think Dunta will do to a reasonable facsimile of an above average cornerback.

Grade: INC

CB Chris Owens, Starter: Unlike orang3b, I'm not going to write about Chris Houston, because he's no longer with the team. That dog is done hunting, mon-cig-nore. Instead, I'm going to split you down the middle by listing Chris Owens as a starter. Fun!

Out of all the cornerbacks on the roster, I have the most faith in Chris Owens. He's not the most physically gifted (Brent Grimes), he's not the most experienced (Brian Williams), and he's not the most Chevis Jacksony (Chevis Jackson). What he possesses, however, is the best pure coverage potential on this roster, outside of Dunta Robinson regaining his early form. Owens is very intelligent and eager to learn, and he's got enough quickness and agility to keep up with his man. Is he a long-term "#1?" No way. Is he a long-term starter, and potentially a very good one?

Absolutely.

Grade: B

CB Brent Grimes, Nickel: Ah yes, the freakishly athletic one.

What Grimes brings to the table is the ability to change the course of the game in one fell swoop. You saw it on his gravity-defying pick of Drew Brees, but that was not an isolated incident. He led the team in interceptions in 2009, and he's actually done pretty well in coverage through his brief Falcons career.

Given that, why would I list him at nickel? Simply put, I want to see him pick off more passes, and I think the Falcons have a huge crush on Owens. At the nickel, Grimes can spend less time focusing on pure coverage and more time lunging towards the ball. He could legitimately exceed his six interceptions there.

But if he does end up starting? Well, he's a very talented young cornerback and I have a lot of confidence in him. Right now, he's probably the team's second best corner, and he's a guy I want around for years to come.

Grade: B+

CB Brian Williams, Backup: I'm not going to beat the horse that orang3b already killed, but Williams was not our best cornerback in 2009. Not even close. He looked good in the first couple of games of the season, but then ineffectiveness and injury crippled the rest of his season.

Williams is kind of like Mike Peterson: A Mike Smith guy who brings a lot of character and savvy to a team. As a backup, he's very valuable. As a starter, he's baffling. His coverage skills are slipping as his legs begin to fail him, and he doesn't play the ball well enough to make up for that.

If the team is smart, they'll maximize his potential by playing him on a limited basis, where he can do some damage against lesser receivers and against the run. He's still a valuable leader for the younger guys in our secondary. Of course, if the team drafts a young corner, he ought to be the first one to go.

Grade: D+

CB Chevis Jackson, Backup: I honestly thought Chevis would have a starting job by now, but I am occasionally wrong.

Jackson plays very well in a nickel role, which he could be bumped from now that we have more starting-caliber cornerbacks than we have spots to start them in. Jackson plays the pass in a heads-up fashion and tackles well enough to earn playing time. He's still reasonably young, but I can't shake the nagging feeling that he'd be the first one out the door if the Falcons invested a high draft pick in a cornerback. Maybe I'm just paranoid—I hope so—and Jackson will be around for a long time yet.

Grade: B-

Safeties

I'm only going to cover three players here, because it is now 1 a.m. Ask me for my feeling on our current backups in the comments and I'll definitely let you know.

FS Thomas DeCoud, Starter: All you need to know about Thomas DeCoud is that no less an authority than Mike Smith declared him the team's defensive MVP for 2009. He's got such tremendous coverage instincts for a safety that it's little surprise the team elected to move Erik Coleman over to SS last year, and we'd remember his season even more fondly if he hadn't bobbled a couple of potential interceptions early in the season.

Given the scarcity of top-flight talent at the position in the NFL, it wouldn't surprise me if DeCoud starts turning some heads nationally in 2010. If he can hold on to a couple more picks, snatch up a few more tackles and otherwise continue to do what he's been good at all along, DeCoud's going to have a very nice season. I think we can all be happy with that.

Grade: A

SS Erik Coleman, Starter: Great against the run, terrible against the pass.

If this sounds like the second coming of Brian Williams to you.....well, Coleman's younger. That's about all he's got going for him, though. Given that the concerns with William Moore center around his pass coverage and we already know Coleman's an inferior option when it comes to that, he's going to face an uphill battle for the job he's held over the last couple of seasons.

Of course, the principal advantage to playing strong safety is that you're supposed to do better against the run, so he's got enough value that he's unlikely to disappear from the safety rotation entirely. Still, he shouldn't be starting if William Moore is healthy and vaguely competent.

Grade: C

S William "C4" Moore, Backup: We know little about Moore, because he ended up missing almost the entire season due to injury. That nickname, though? That's because he can blow people up. Look for him to seriously challenge Coleman for a starting job.

Grade: INC

As always, leave your thoughts in the comments.