Jalen Collins is only 24 years old, and he was selected in the second round in Dan Quinn’s first offseason as head coach at a position of vital importance in Dan Quinn’s defense. Not everyone loved the pick—I liked it but was a little ambivalent about Collins’ long-term prospects—but it wasn’t difficult to envision him stepping into a major role on the defense.
Basically nothing has gone according to plan since then, unfortunately. Collins started two games his rookie season and didn’t acquit himself well, which was not particularly alarming given that rookie defenders don’t always shine. Then he got a four game performance enhancing substance suspension heading into 2016, and was only awarded major playing time on special teams until Desmond Trufant got hurt. Given his first real break, Collins stepped up in a major way, playing well down the stretch with six starts in the regular season and three in the postseason. It looked like he would still be the fourth cornerback on a stacked depth chart heading into 2017, but the upside was evident and the opportunity figured to come at some point.
Instead, Collins just got hit with another 10 game suspension for performance enhancing substances, and the Falcons released a terse, disapproving statement that made it clear #32’s future with the team is not secure. He still obviously has talent and is still young, so I’m hopeful this story has a happy ending for Collins and the Falcons. There are no guarantees of that, however, and we need to make peace with that.
Here are three possibilities for Collins going forward.
Scenario 1: Collins is kept
This is not an impossibility, despite the team’s obvious frustration with Collins. The team is more than set at starter for the short term with Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and Brian Poole has proven himself to be a capable nickel corner in very short order. The question marks come after those top three, and there’s still a legitimate possibility that Collins is the team’s best bet, as much as they may be loathe to admit that.
This outcome hinges on a couple of factors. The first is Collins’ own repentance and work during his suspension, because we know that NFL teams don’t handle players not prostrating themselves for forgiveness very well. If Collins is going to stick around, he’s going to need to hit the ground running when he returns. The second is the performance of the players who will be standing in for him, and that’s something he can’t control.
As Matthew Chambers noted yesterday, C.J. Goodwin is the early and obvious favorite to be fourth on the depth chart with Collins suspended. Goodwin was an impressive special teamer and a useful cornerback in 2016, the same year he switched to cornerback from wide receiver, and he should be even better with another offseason under his belt. I’d go ahead and write his name in with pen, and I don’t necessarily think he’s going to falter. After that, depending on whether the team keeps five or six cornerbacks, you’re likely looking at Deji Olatoye, Akeem King, Blidi-Wreh Wilson and undrafted free agents duking it out for one or two spots. I’d consider Olatoye and King the favorites for the fifth and sixth spots, respectively.
The bottom line is that Collins will be back if the team believes he can help them win football games. If he comes back healthy and ready to play, and the Falcons aren’t satisfied with their cornerback depth, you may still see him in black and red this season.
Scenario 2: Collins is released
Given the tenor of the team’s statement after the suspension announcement, you have to think this is on the table. If we look at the scenario above, but assume that Goodwin and Olatoye/Damontae Kazee look good and there’s no major injury concerns, it’s very possible the Falcons will wash their hands of their third-year cornerback.
In years past, this would have been a non-starter, but this team is now extremely deep and talented at cornerback. Poole’s emergence a year ago means it’s going to be difficult for Collins to crack the starting lineup unless he comes back looking like a superstar
If the Falcons simply want to send a message, or if they don’t think Collins is one of their four best cornerbacks, he’s probably gone. The Falcons made mistakes in the past holding on to players like Sam Baker and Peter Konz longer than their play warranted, and while Collins is better than that, these suspensions don’t help his cause.
Scenario 3: Collins is traded
Eric Robinson ran down three possible trade scenarios yesterday, and while Collins has essentially torpedoed his value, it’s not impossible to think the Falcons could move him in the offseason if he comes back and plays well down the stretch. It is unlikely that they’ll get more than a late draft pick for him, unfortunately, because he didn’t look like a superstar even during his run as a starter and is a risk to be suspended for a full season going forward.
So what’s going to happen? My guess, ultimately, is that the Falcons will elect to cut Collins when they can do so. He’s one strike away from a full season suspension, and he hasn’t shown the kind of elite talent that would make him more worth the risk for Atlanta. It would be a sad ending to the Collins era, but not a particularly surprising one.