Reactions to the Javier Arenas signing ranged from cautiously positive to grim, as you would expect from a 26-year-old cornerback on his third team in five seasons. A former second-round pick of the Chiefs under Scott Pioli, Arenas is the kind of signing you automatically chalk up to Pioli's outsized influence.
That's not the route we're going to take today. Instead, we're going to take a hard look at the cornerbacks and returners on this roster and try to determine where Arenas fits in. You may not feel better about the signing by the time we're done, but hopefully we'll all understand why the Falcons elected to sign him. Also, you're welcome.
Arenas' best success has come when he's been asked to rush the passer out of nickel and dime sets. This clip of him taking Ryan Mallet to the turf twice while in college illustrates Arenas' speed and ability to turn the corner quickly, and his lack of size can make it difficult to see him coming. At the NFL level, Arenas has five sacks in four seasons, not bad for a part-time defensive back.
Beyond that, Arenas has been a decidedly mixed bag. His coverage is merely average, he's not a turnover-forcing machine and he struggles to wrap up and bring down bigger receivers. The most popular phrase to describe him at Arrowhead Pride appears to have been "decent nickel cornerback," and the best thing you can say for him is that he's still young and has the athleticism to be a better player than he's been thus far.
It's not difficult to see where he fits on the Falcons' depth chart. Dominique Franks apparently is not returning, so the Falcons have two great young cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, as well as Robert McClain in the nickel. McClain didn't set the world on fire a year ago, but he too is young and he's shown better ability at the NFL level than Arenas thus far. The Falcons will probably give Arenas a real shot to unseat McClain, but it's unlikely barring injury or a total meltdown from the latter.
That leaves Arenas as a fourth cornerback for these Falcons and a better fit in nickel packages than as a starter. If injuries strike, the Falcons would likely plan to move McClain outside and kick Arenas in on those frequent nickel packages. They'll likely sign another veteran cornerback or draft someone in the later rounds, but there's a good chance Arenas sticks as a fourth or fifth cornerback if he can show more than he did in a disappointing 2013 campaign with the Arizona Cardinals.
In other words, he's depth. About what you would expect.
Arenas has been a decent returner over the course of his career, but merely decent. With the Chiefs and Cardinals he averaged about 21 yards per kick return and about 10 yards per punt return, which is the very definition of average. He's also never taken one to the house, if you're a fan of such things.
The continued presence of Devin Hester in Atlanta tells me the Falcons don't view Arenas as more than a fallback or an injury replacement for a more dynamic option. He's sure-handed and can advance the ball, which makes him a comparable option or better to anyone currently on the roster, but Arenas doesn't offer much in the way of big play potential. You can live with that pretty comfortably, and this gives the team some leverage to use against Hester. Again, depth.
Ultimately, Arenas is still young enough to get better, but likely slots in as useful secondary depth and someone who will be in the mix as a returner. On a one-year, prove-it type deal, the Falcons could have done worse, but it is fair to argue they could have done better. Hopefully Arenas' potential and youth will translate into a pleasant surprise.