The cornerback position has always been an odd position for the Falcons. Whenever the position seems to be filled with talent, it still seemed to have weaknesses. It was only three seasons ago that the Falcons had Brent Grimes, Asante Samuel, and Dunta Robinson as their cornerback trio. It was a star-studded trio, although Robinson’s play had declined rapidly in 2011. This was still considered to be one of the major strengths of the team.
In a matter of two seasons, the entire cornerback rotation has been revamped. The unit is filled of mostly youth with a veteran presence in Josh Wilson. While the numbers won’t prove it (worst pass defense in 2014), the cornerbacks mostly played admirably through turbulent times. The pass rush being non-existent for most of the season contributed to that stat heavily. Paul Worrilow being a complete liability in coverage; along with William Moore’s absence were significant reasons behind the defense allowing the most passing yards in the league. Robert Alford had his struggles, but showed more promise than concern in 2014.
There was one cornerback who seemed to be picked on regularly. If it wasn’t Worrilow or Kemal Ishmael being targeted, quarterbacks would key on Robert McClain. The breakdowns in coverage became evident from watching McClain either give his assignment too much respect or wind up a step behind them. Whether it was playing on the outside or inside, teams would target him on a consistent basis. It’s hard to determine how, exactly, McClain’s play declined over the past two seasons. He was one of the team’s biggest surprises in the memorable 2012 season.
After Grimes tore his Achilles against Kansas City and Christopher Owens was a major liability at nickel corner, it was McClain’s job to lose. He responded with ten passes defensed and efficient tackling in 2012. Similar to the never-ending issues of putting together a quality pass-rush, the Falcons always struggled to find an efficient nickel corner. The list goes on from Chevis Jackson, Brian Williams, and Owens during the Mike Smith era. It was rare to see a nickel back on Atlanta's defense be an actual asset than liability.
McClain’s steady play convinced Atlanta not to re-sign Grimes (along with other bizarre reasons) and release Robinson. The front office was hellbent on getting younger at the cornerback position in drafting Alford and Desmond Trufant. Despite the fact that he had a very god 2012, the organization didn’t seem fond of Samuel’s injury issues. All of the signs pointed towards McClain becoming a vital part of the Falcons secondary in the upcoming years. That was one of many decisions that the front office would live to regret.
While the entire team struggled in 2013, it can’t be overlooked how much McClain struggled. The likes of Jeremy Kerley and Kenbrell Thompkins were beating him on a consistent basis. With Samuel injured once again, the coaching staff had to rely on him. He never stepped up into being the reliable corner that he was in 2012. His lack of speed became evident against speedy slot receivers like Kerley and Stevie Johnson. The coaching staff was forced to bench him following the bye week in week seven against Tampa Bay, after Samuel returned from injury.
Many people were willing to give McClain another opportunity to earn the nickel cornerback opening. They wanted to claim that 2013 was an aberration because of the lack of pass-rush and the front seven being overwhelmed. It was going to be a revamped defense in 2014, which made me somewhat hopeful for improvement. That wasn’t the case, as McClain immediately struggled against Brandin Cooks in the first game of the season. While he did make a game-changing interception, it seemed evident that he couldn’t handle slot receivers any longer.
It’s hard to suss out how a nickel cornerback’s play can drop so substantially at such a young age. Besides crafty blitz designs, there wasn’t anything that protected McClain during his productive 2012 season. He would go against the likes of Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston. The only difference would be that those particular receivers relied on route running and using their body to get open. They don’t have the speed of Cooks or Kerley, who can simply fly past cornerbacks. Despite being just five-foot-nine, McClain was far more effective against taller receivers.
His struggles continued against Greg Jennings in week four, as Jennings roasted him on a wheel route that included McClain holding him in the process. Jarius Wright gave him issues as well. That led towards him being benched for the second consecutive season. Wilson took over at nickel corner and limited Victor Cruz to just three catches on 22 yards in his first start. That cemented his place at that position for the rest of the season. Similar to 2013, McClain was once again forced into the starting lineup through an injury, as Alford dislocated his wrist.
He responded immediately by getting roasted by Philly Brown on a 47-yard touchdown. On the following week, Brian Hoyer targeted his side when Josh Gordon was well covered. McClain struggled against the likes of Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins in what Pro Football Focus highlighted in their recap of the game. The once reliable tackler also missed multiple tackles in a devastating loss to Cleveland.
While McClain’s play somewhat improved near the end of the season, it simply wasn’t good enough. The coaching staff made a hint of his struggles at playing nickel corner. Mike Nolan admitted that McClain seems to be a better fit on the outside. That doesn’t bode well for his future in Atlanta. Dan Quinn has preached about his defense being able to play fast. McClain has proven to be one of the slower nickel corners in the league.
Unless he’s able to play more physical by getting an efficient jam at the line of scrimmage, he’s proven to be a liability. At such an important position, are there any positives towards re-signing McClain? Although he’ll only be 27 years old going into the 2015 season, will anything significant change? Speed is such a crucial attribute to have at playing nickel corner. Another essential attribute is simply having ball skills, which McClain hasn’t shown in his three seasons in Atlanta. Besides those two memorable interceptions on Drew Brees, there haven’t been many big plays from him through the past two seasons.
If you read my Osi Umenyiora piece, I’m all for keeping a few veterans at a reasonable price. They also have to provide some value as a role player. When you look at McClain’s track record, it’s easy to say that one good season doesn’t overlap two poor seasons. Let’s not forget that the Panthers and Jaguars have released him in the past, before the Falcons signed him in 2012. Those are telling signs, considering that both teams have had porous secondary’s in recent years.
From his lack of speed to not being able to effectively play the nickel corner position, it’s time to move on from McClain. The cornerback position is fairly similar to wide receiver, where it’s a position filled of talent across the league and draft. It will be up to the front office to find a quality cornerback in the latter rounds. They should also look to see what they have in Ricardo Allen. Don't rule out trying to invest in a mid-tier corner in free agency. Those are all better options than keeping a player that continues to regress on a yearly basis.