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Atlanta Falcons 2017 Roster Review: Cornerback

The position remained a strength for Atlanta.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons went through near constant upheaval in the cornerback group throughout Mike Smith’s tenure as head coach, until 2013 draft picks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford finally locked down their roles in the secondary. We do continue to see turnover in the group under Dan Quinn, but now it’s in the lower depths of the roster.

It isn’t often that we see this level of stability in the Atlanta secondary. Trufant and Alford are under long term contracts, while nickel corner Brian Poole has only two years of league tenure. He won’t be eligible for restricted free agency until after the 2018 season.

WR prospect Deante Burton made the practice squad as a cornerback, and in what seemed a bit of a steal both then and now, the Falcons drafted Damontae Kazee in the fifth round last year. However, while the team’s official web site continues to list Kazee as a corner, his size and speed make him a better fit as a safety in Dan Quinn’s defense. Safety is where he actually played last season.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson managed to stick on the 2017 roster, and the Falcons picked up another outcast in Leon McFadden late in the season. Both are free agents once again this offseason, though neither is likely to be in high demand - or any demand, for that matter.

Requiem For The Departed

But there’s a limited number of openings on the roster, so every new player coming aboard means a departure. Former second rounder Jalen Collins got himself suspended by the league for a second time, and the team released him as soon as his suspension ended. No one claimed him off of waivers, and he reportedly managed to get himself yet another four game suspension in December. He remains unsigned for now, but he would be a proven commodity and a reliable asset for any team that wants to add depth to their Reserve/Suspended list.

In mid-December, the coaching staff decided to replace prospect C.J. Goodwin by bringing back prospect Deji Olatoye, who had been released in mid-September. It wasn’t a reshuffling of the roster with other positions involved. It was simply a swap of one player for the other, which suggests the coaching staff had lost confidence in Goodwin.

They might have intended to keep Goodwin on the practice squad, but Arizona claimed him off of waivers. He finished the season with the Cardinals, so they hold the rights to him heading into 2018.

Two weeks later, injury concerns on the line prompted the team to sign Jamil Douglas from the practice squad. Olatoye was the player waived to make room. He cleared waivers and is still available, but up to this point the Falcons have elected not to resign him.

So there may be an opening or two at the bottom of the depth chart, but the CB group is certainly not one of the top priorities on Thomas Dimitroff’s to-do list. Here’s the roundup of the group as it stands before free agency kicks in:

Desmond Trufant

The 2015 Pro Bowl corner returned from his injury-shortened 2016 season to play 15 regular season games in 2017. His stats for the season included 12 passes defended and a career high 3 fumble recoveries. But the most important aspect heading into 2018 is that he finished the season healthy and should be back to full form this year.

Robert Alford

His contract extension took many fans by surprise, but Rocky continues to grow and improve in Quinn’s defense. At 5’ 10”, he may not have the height that one would expect Quinn to play as an outside starter, but Alford certainly has the length to fit the profile - he has a 32” arm length to go with a 40” vertical jump. As long as he keeps working on reducing the penalties called against him, he’s a solid starter.

One other item on Alford that has been forgotten in his five years here is that he could also serve as a return man if necessary. The team won’t risk him in that role now that he’s a starter, but it’s always fun to look back at this moment from his Senior Bowl appearance. (What makes it even better is who finally tackled him.)

Brian Poole

Yes, I know many here wonder if Poole needs to be replaced. But before you get too eager to make a move, try to remember that Poole is only two years out of college. He has played well overall, extremely well for an undrafted prospect, and he still has more upside potential. A rookie drafted to replace him would have a few seasons of growing pains too, making the same types of errors that you occasionally see from Poole.

For me, the amount of experience Poole has gained in just two seasons is a tremendous advantage. He has now appeared in 31 regular season games, starting 12, and has 5 additional postseason games with 4 starts. Fun fact: heading into the first preseason game of 2008, Atlanta’s top three corners only had 18 career NFL games and 11 starts - combined.

Getting so much actual game experience so quickly means that Poole will be able to focus on improving his game in training camp this year rather than working hard just to learn the scheme. I do expect him to have competition for playing time in the nickel role, but at least for now I’d say that role is still his to lose.

Damontae Kazee

He was a safety in 2017, and I expect him to be a safety again in 2018. But depth players do need to cross train, and Dan Quinn had openly said last year that he intended to work Kazee some at nickel. I’m not expecting a lot of snaps for him in the nickel role, but I do think he’ll get some cross training as a nickel and as a dime back.

His development was set back by an ankle injury in preseason last year, costing him a chance to get work in two exhibition games. He did get healthy for the opener, was a core special teams player throughout the season (third on the team in ST snaps) and managed to get in 163 snaps on defense. But he’s still a work in progress, and a full, healthy preseason will be vital for getting him through the learning curve.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson

He’s a free agent, but he should be cheap to keep should the Falcons want to re-sign him. The Titans released the former third rounder at the 2016 roster cuts. Atlanta signed him at the end of November, released him, resigned him, declined to tender him as a restricted free agent for 2017 but promptly resigned him as an unrestricted free agent. He’s a long corner (6’ 1” with 32” arms and a 36” vertical) with pretty good speed. But he struggled in Tennessee, prompting the Titans to try him at safety and ultimately release him.

He played sparingly last season, taking the depth role that would likely have otherwise been held by Olatoye. I’d call it a coin flip on whether the team brings him back for training camp. The main reasons to consider resigning him and letting him compete are that he has the physical attributes to be a good system fit, has more experience than most depth players, and wouldn’t put a noticeable dent on the salary cap.

Leon McFadden

It’s okay. He’s never heard of you either.

Atlanta used the #60 selection of the 2013 draft to select Robert Alford. The Falcons had also traded their third rounder, the #92 overall selection, to move up in the first round to land Trufant. In between, Cleveland used the #68 pick to take McFadden early in the third round.

Let’s see if we can keep his movements since then straight. He played every game and started twice in his rookie year but didn’t make the 2014 Browns roster. The Jets claimed him off waivers – and released him less than two weeks later. The 49ers added him to their practice squad and signed him to the regular roster in midseason. He appeared in 7 games for them that year, but he wasn’t able to make their 2015 roster.

Arizona then signed him to their practice squad, where he remained for half the season before the Giants signed him away as a regular roster player. New York released him a few weeks later but signed him to their own practice squad, then resigned him for camp the following year. He didn’t make that roster, but the Cowboys added him to the practice squad in midseason and called him up to the regular roster soon afterwards.

He had a hamstring injury in preseason last summer and was released with an injury settlement. The Falcons signed him for added depth in early December, though he did not appear in any games for Atlanta. He’s now a free agent, so we might not see him in minicamp or training camp this year either.

While it seems unlikely that he would be resigned, the coaching staff did opt to keep him while releasing both Goodwin and Olatoye late last season. Apparently they liked something they saw in McFadden.

Deante Burton

The undrafted Kansas State receiver looked like an interesting prospect in training camp - until he dropped a couple of passes in the preseason games. But it probably didn’t matter what he did as a wide receiver. He’s 6’2”, 200 pounds, with roughly 4.50 speed and a 38” vertical. With that profile, you just know that Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel were both thinking “CORNERBACK!” from the moment he arrived in Flowery Branch.

So after failing to crack the roster as a receiver, he spent the season with the practice squad on defense. Can he defend more reliably than he could catch? The team did resign him for 2018, so we’ll find out this summer.

The Player To Be Named Later

If you figure five cornerbacks on the roster (or six including Kazee), there will be one or two roster spots up for grabs at the bottom of the group. Some of the strongest contenders for these roster spots aren’t even in the organization yet. It’s quite possible that the team will add an extra corner at some point of the draft, but someone whose name isn’t read off of a card in April could easily round out the group as well.

After all, Poole made it as an undrafted rookie. Goodwin and Olatoye stuck around in their first seasons with the team, and it was a pair of out-of-nowhere guys (Wreh-Wilson and McFadden) found in the recycling bin that ultimately replaced them last season. The bottom line is that if they have the size, speed and length to fit the profile, they are likely to be a serious part of the competition, even if they played as safeties or as wide receivers in college or with their previous teams.