The offensive line being a disappointment wasn’t a massive surprise, especially once Andy Levitre went down. The defensive line was going to be dependent on Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley taking real strides forward, and when they didn’t, that unit predictably suffered.
What happened at cornerback, however, was legitimately surprising to me.
The Falcons capped off 2018 with a solid season from Desmond Trufant with some brutal lows, arguably the worst season of Robert Alford’s career, a mixed-but-decent year for Brian Poole and a largely forgettable rookie season for Isaiah Oliver. For a position group that was healthy pretty much all year and had a lot of success in 2016 and 2017, that was highly disappointing and unexpected, and it contributed to the team’s lackluster defense all year long.
You can certainly blame the loss of both starting safeties, which put more pressure on the corners from a communications and play perspective, but that’s not the whole story. That’s why Thomas Dimitroff was very candid about the team’s desire to invest in cornerback again in the draft, and it’s why we should expect some shakeups at the position.
Let’s dive in and see who is available and how things might shake out.
Let’s start with an assumption, one that we’ve talked about endlessly already and that I’m not particularly looking forward to. The Falcons are going to cut Robert Alford unless they can significantly alter his contract, and I’m guessing Alford will (rightly) feel he can land another large contract on the open market. He’s probably gone, though increasingly I’m hopeful he will not be.
That leaves a gap, even if Isaiah Oliver is ready to step in and Damontae Kazee dabbles at cornerback, because the Falcons have also not gotten above-average coverage out of Brian Poole for some time. Poole is an extremely useful player and will be back in Atlanta this year, but he may not prove to be the team’s full-time nickel cornerback. That means the Falcons are going to invest at cornerback.
It’ll likely be in the draft, though. Since Dan Quinn arrived in Atlanta, they haven’t made cornerback a free agent priority, likely due to the presence of Trufant and Alford and a desire to get his own guys in the door. With Alford’s salary coming off the books, I don’t imagine that will change.
Your likeliest signings are probably players who can round out the back end of the depth chart. Blidi Wreh-Wilson has done nothing in his limited opportunities in Atlanta but play very well, and he deserves to return as the team’s fourth or fifth cornerback, if he desires to do so. If the Falcons want to bring in someone who more closely fits the length and physicality DQ loved in Seattle and appeared to target with the selections of Jalen Collins and Oliver, he could swing for the fences a bit more and get someone who could likely beat out Oliver this year, like Pierre Desir or Eric Rowe. But I’d be willing to bet we’ll see either BWW again or a similarly inexpensive free agent option to fill in as the nominal fifth cornerback.
This is where you can expect to see some action. It’s be surprised—and depending on the player and who is available, angry—to see the Falcons use a first round pick on a cornerback. They may well do so on the second or early third day of the draft, however, and it’s worth asking who that player might be.
If it’s the second day, Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye or Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen would seem to offer the kind of length and physicality that would cause Dan Quinn’s eyes to turn into cartoon hearts. If it’s on the third day, we’re not going to have a good feel for their interest for a bit, but they shouldn’t lack for options in a class Thomas Dimitroff and Quinn seem to like. Given their habits when it comes to acquiring cornerbacks since 2015, I’d be heavily on a draft selection, and I’d also bet heavily on it being someone that the Falcons can pair with Oliver in the future.
The preferred outcome
I really like Isaiah Oliver and think he’ll pan out, but it’s legitimate to be wary of how the team has fared in the draft with cornerbacks under Dan Quinn, given that Jalen Collins (second round) and Akeem King (seventh) really haven’t panned out, and Damontae Kazee has chiefly been a safety for the Falcons to this point. I’d like to think they could lean heavily on Oliver but don’t know it for certain. So my ideal scenario might surprise you a bit, but here it is.
The Falcons draft a player late that they like and give him a year or two to develop, and they find a way to keep Robert Alford around. Alford either returns to form, which would mean the Falcons would be right back to having a high-quality secondary, or his veteran savvy and ability make him a great locker room presence for Oliver and the new rookie, as well as a high-end reserve. Blidi Wreh-Wilson fills out the roster as a sixth cornerback and break-in-case-of-emergency option at the position.
I don’t think the Falcons will just move ahead with Alford’s contract as is, as I’ve suggested, but I’m hopeful they can work something out.
The likely outcome
The Falcons move on from Alford, given his cap charge and 2018, and draft a cornerback between rounds 2-4. They bring back Blidi Wreh-Wilson and roll forward with Desmond Trufant, Oliver, Poole, the rookie, Wreh-Wilson and Kazee as their six guys (using only five roster spots) at the position. If Oliver and the rookie pan out, they’re in great shape, but things get pretty hairy in this scenario if that does not happen.