Cornerback was a problem spot for the Falcons in 2018. Desmond Trufant had a couple of bad games in an otherwise quality year, Robert Alford was hurt and had perhaps his worst NFL season as a result, Brian Poole was solid but still suffered through some shaky coverage, and the team’s depth was questionable outside of Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who barely got on the field. The late growth of Isaiah Oliver was a rare bright spot, but it was beyond aggravating to see the Falcons trot Alford out week after week in light of what we’ve learned about his injury, especially with Oliver and Wreh-Wilson largely parked.
To their credit, the Falcons have made the position an offseason priority. Their top three looks pretty strong and talented on paper with Kazee porting over from safety, and with two draft selections and the return of Wreh-Wilson, this team could field six interesting corners in 2019. Let’s break the position down further.
Few positions with genuine talent on this roster is in more flux than cornerback, with only guard being a serious contender as a rival here. The Falcons had an expected top three of Desmond Trufant, Isaiah Oliver, and Damontae Kazee going into free agency and the draft, and that is still the expectation today. It’s just that it’s not the settled matter it might have been before.
Let’s roll on with that assumption, though, because it’s still the likeliest outcome. That brings us first to Desmond Trufant, who is probably the single most divisive player on this roster once you clear out the increasingly silly attacks on Matt Ryan. Trufant is getting paid like a top ten cornerback—his annual average is currently the seventh-highest in the league—and hasn’t quite played at that level over the last 2-3 years. He remains the team’s best cover cornerback, a top ten player in the NFL when it comes to handling deep strikes, and a player who reliably makes plays on the ball. He’s had a bit of a tougher time on short-to-intermediate routes in recent years and is notoriously bad at coming down with the interceptions that find their way into his hands, but he remains a very good player whose limitations are magnified because they don’t concern the thing he does best: Covering receivers. No one should be shocked if the Falcons are looking to move on from him in the next couple of seasons—drafting three cornerbacks in the last two seasons does give one that impression—but he’ll head into the year as the team’s best starter by a wide margin.
The new #2 is Isaiah Oliver, a player I unabashedly love despite an up-and-down rookie season. Oliver isn’t the prototype cornerback for Dan Quinn, per se, but he’s got close to ideal length, a strong athletic profile, the high character makeup DQ covets, and the ability to make plays on the ball. He’s going to be tested early and often in 2019, but he has the skill to thrive as soon as this year in an expanded opportunity. His success—or lack thereof—will be crucial to the unit, but optimism is the only thing I have for that and it’s not super tangible.
Kazee as a cornerback is a little different, because we saw him on the field plenty last year, albeit at safety. From that, we know that Kazee’s physicality compares favorably to Brian Poole, who was brutally effective at dropping receivers and quarterbacks alike as the team’s physical nickel corner. We also know he’s a true ballhawk, having grabbed seven interceptions in 2018 at safety, and that his experience at corner in college should help him make the transition pretty smoothly. Kazee has the upside to be a terrific option here, and his track record in coverage suggests he can probably improve what Poole offered there a year ago.
Overall, this group has a ton of talent and upside but question marks to go with it, largely based on experience (Kazee and Oliver) and recent production (Trufant). I’m bullish on their chances of being above average, at the very least.
Things are very interesting here after the draft. The Falcons used a fourth round pick on Kendall Sheffield, a player this team clearly loves despite the fact that he’s a day three pick. Sheffield has length, fantastic wheels, and an aggressive style of play, and he’ll get as much run as he shows he’s capable of handling. He’ll go into the year as the fourth or fifth cornerback, depending on his progress, but if/when his coverage and instincts improve he’s going to push the starters. At the very least, Ben Kotwica should be itching to get his speed on special teams.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson will be fighting to make the roster now with two rookies, but he shouldn’t be counted out of the competition. He’s played well the last two seasons, albeit in very limited opportunities, and figures to slot in as the fourth or fifth corner because of it. If the Falcons only carry five corners, though, Wreh-Wilson’s probably the guy who is gonna lose his gig.
Jordan Miller is the other rookie, and he’s an intriguing player as well. His upside might not be as titanic as Sheffield’s, but he offers quality speed and pretty advanced coverage instincts and acumen for a sixth round rookie. He needs to put injury issues behind him and improve his play strength, as our own Eric Robinson noted, but he has the talent to be a high-end reserve at worst in the NFL if he can get there. For the first year of his career, though, I imagine he’ll be the last man off the bench.
There are other competitors here, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that none of them are going to make the roster unless the Falcons move one of their current cornerbacks.
It’s a refrain you’ll hear over and over again on defense, but it’s worth repeating in every instance: The cornerback group has the talent to be tremendous, but there are valid questions about whether everything will come together the way we want it to.
Trufant is the closest thing to a sure thing at the position, with his coverage skills largely holding up aside from what has become an annual couple of shaky games. Otherwise, this team is going to be heavily relying on young, athletic talent, from the more experienced Oliver and particularly Kazee to the brand new Sheffield and Miller. If they live up to their reputed talent, or even close to it, cornerback might be one of the team’s true defensive strengths. If Oliver and/or Kazee falter, the Falcons at least have interesting options, but it’s really just a question of readiness for a group of potentially gifted young defensive backs.
Me? I’ll go on record and say that I expect Trufant, Oliver and Kazee to all enjoy quality years, with Sheffield and Miller mixing in to get a little experience and prepare to take on larger roles in 2019. I’m probably more bullish about this group than any other on defense, unless you count the suddenly deep defensive tackle group.