Entering the 2012 season, the Atlanta Falcons had a trio of cornerbacks in Brent Grimes, Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson, acquired through free agency (Robinson), trade (Samuel) and NFL Europe (Grimes), that were part of an intimidating secondary.
Just two seasons later, the position has been overhauled completely, with Samuel getting the axe earlier this month and Robinson and Grimes leaving the team last offseason. Thankfully for the Falcons, their first two draft picks of 2013 wound up producing players in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford that look like long-term answers on defense.
That's not to say that last season was absent of growing pains: Alford and even Trufant took their share of lumps as the rest of the team did. But the potential both showed, especially as rookies at one of the toughest positions to learn quickly in the NFL, has to leave the team feeling particularly confident about the future at cornerback.
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As we already know, Trufant's body of work was simply excellent. Though he was definitely the player I had wanted to see Atlanta select leading up to the draft, I still had my doubts about him through camp and the preseason, what with the reports of the Washington product being "a step behind" everyone else in camp, etc. But once the season hit, we saw something else: a saavy, instinctive, gritty player that had a knack for getting his hands on the ball and keeping receivers quiet. It's true that, at times, he got burned. But overall, considering he wasn't a liability in the run game and did a good job of not drawing the PI flag, Trufant's performance was one of Atlanta's few bright spots in 2013.
It's a good thing, too, since the now 33 year-old "Pick-Six" really began to show his age during the season. Between battling a thigh injury and his inability to create turnovers, Samuel wound up riding the bench in favor of Alford by the time December rolled around. And with his contract, his subsequent dismissal comes as no surprise. The "youth movement" continues.
Coming out of Southeastern Louisiana, it was naturally expected that Alford would be a slower learner than Trufant, which he was: he made his share of mistakes in coverage. But merely by virtue of the experience he gained in a starting role down the stretch of the season, and assuming he can make strides this offseason, I think we can still safely call 2013 a success for #TeamAlford.
As for Robert McClain, though he had a couple of rough weeks in coverage, the former seventh-round pick again proved a valuable contributor both as a slot defender and as a punt return man (just over a 10-yard average).
Best Game: Week 17
Believe it or not, I chose the season finale loss to the Carolina Panthers. Why? In addition to limiting Cam Newton to just 149 yard passing, you have to look at who accounted for that production. DeAngelo Williams had 75 yards receiving. Greg Olsen had 42. Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn combined for 4 catches and 22 yards.
Yes, Steve Smith was inactive, which obviously hurt the Panthers. But it still represented an excellent effort by Atlanta's cornerbacks.
Worst Game: Week 5
This was an easy one to forget, but when you go back and see "Geno Smith: 16-for-20, 199 yards and 3 touchdowns" it's hard not to pick this one as the worst. You certainly couldn't blame it on the pressure: Smith was sacked four times and hit on three more dropbacks. Again, the team's inability to force turnovers after living off that trait the season before was its undoing, and the cornerbacks are at least partially at fault. It was a frustrating game to watch all around.
Best Moment: Trufant Picks Off Cousins
There were some ugly points in this game, but Trufant's interception was not one of them. To me, this play (alongside his game-saving pass deflection) served as a sort of rookie season culmination for him, and it also lead to one of those rare Falcons wins.
Worst Moment: Cousins torches Trufant
Talk about highs and lows in one game. Honestly, there were plenty of bad moments to choose from, but Kirk Cousins' 56-yard scoring toss to Pierre Garcon stands out to me because Zeke Motta completely misreads the pass and basically winds up hitting Trufant instead of playing defense. Good times.
Years Under Contract
Trufant: 2014 ($776K), 2015 ($1.14M) and 2016 ($918K, plus $600K roster bonus)
Alford: 2014 ($559K), 2015 ($714K) and 2016 ($868K)
Jordan Mabin: Futures contract
Saeed Lee: Futures contract
Naturally, the biggest move has already been made, with Samuel and the Falcons parting ways. I believe McClain will and should stick around, since the team can keep him for a reasonable price ($2.023 million for the second-round tender) and he's a nice asset at nickelback. Franks could go either way. He's not a bad depth option to have on the roster, but the team may also look at a cheap veteran signing or undrafted free agents while giving Mabin and Lee another shot at making the final 53.
But otherwise, this position is perhaps the most solid of the Falcons defense, with Trufant and Alford locked in as starters and McClain the likely third option.
Final Grade: B
It was a bad year for the Falcons as a whole, but all in all one of progress and excitement for the future at the cornerback position. With an improved pass rush and perhaps an upgrade at free safety, these guys could really thrive next season.