With a new coaching staff and front office in place, the Falcons are going to look and operate a lot differently in 2021. New head coach Arthur Smith is bringing in a new offense, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will be shuffling around the defense for what should be an improved team this season. Meanwhile, new GM Terry Fontenot brings a ton of pro personnel experience with him from the Saints and is likely to emphasize free agency much more than his predecessor, Thomas Dimitroff.
However, Atlanta will have a difficult offseason ahead of them. The 2021 NFL salary cap has been set at $182.5M, which won’t leave the Falcons with much breathing room—the team is currently $14.2M over the cap and will need to make a series of moves just to get under by the start of free agency.
I already took a look at some veteran cuts and restructures the Falcons could do to free up nearly $40M in cap space. Those moves should be enough to get the team under the cap and sign their draft class, but how much the team has to spend in free agency depends on how aggressive the want to be with restructuring some of their larger contracts.
To prepare everyone for 2021 free agency, I’ll be doing a series of episodes breaking down potential free agency targets. You can check out the previous episodes here:
Part 1: Free Agency Basics
Part 2: Priority Re-signings
Part 3: Free agent RB targets
Part 4: Free agent OL targets
Part 5: Free agent TE targets
Part 6: Free agent safety targets
Part 7: Free agent EDGE targets
Part 8: Free agent DT targets
Today, I’m continuing my look at defensive free agents with cornerback. The Falcons have ascending second-year player A.J. Terrell in place at CB1, but a lot of question marks behind him with Isaiah Oliver entering the final year of his rookie contract and Kendall Sheffield playing poorly in 2020. The team definitely needs to add talent here, and probably will do so in both free agency and the draft.
In an effort to support both our loyal readers and our new YouTube audience, I’ve created two versions of this content. Read on if you’d like to enjoy the written version. If you’d like to watch the video, you can find it here or via the embed below. Whatever your preference, please consider clicking on the video to help us grow on both platforms.
2020 team: Titans
2020 stats: 100 total tackles, 1 TFL, 9.1% missed tackle rate | 14 PD, 4 INT, 63.0% completion rate allowed, 83.2 passer rating allowed | 71.6 PFF grade
2021 OTC valuation: $5.1M/yr
Recently cut by the Titans for salary cap reasons, cornerback Malcolm Butler was one of the NFL’s hottest free agents back in 2018. Butler never quite lived up to those lofty expectations, but he was far from the problem in Tennessee during the 2020 season. Butler is versatile and can play both inside and out, and has a history with Dean Pees from 2018-2019.
Butler had a quality 2020 season, showing off his strength in run support with an incredible 100 tackles. He also put together one of his best seasons in coverage, with 14 pass deflections, 4 INTs, and an impressive 83.2 passer rating allowed in his coverage. With a 71.6 PFF grade, Butler is clearly in “good starter” territory. In an offseason flooded with veteran options, Butler might be willing to take a more team-friendly deal to reunite with Dean Pees. He’d be one of the more expensive options out there, however.
2020 team: Jets
2020 stats: 44 total tackles, 2 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 6.4% missed tackle rate | 7 PD, 2 INT, 64.1% completion rate allowed, 61.6 passer rating allowed (9 games played) | 77.1 PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $5.2M/yr
The Falcons never should have let Brian Poole leave all those years ago, as the slot specialist has gone on to become of the NFL’s most consistent nickel cornerbacks since joining the Jets in 2019. Now a free agent once more, Atlanta could have an opportunity to reunite with Poole in 2021. Coming off an injury-plagued season where he started just seven games, Poole still played extremely well in coverage and as a run defender.
Poole’s 61.6 passer rating allowed in coverage was excellent, and his versatility as a blitzer and dependable run stuffer could make him an ideal chess piece for Dean Pees’ defense. He’ll be just 29 during the 2021 season and might be looking for a one-year deal on an ascending defense to prove he can stay healthy and cash in once again in 2022.
2020 team: Lions
2020 stats: 20 total tackles, 1 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 20.0% missed tackle rate | 4 PD, 1 INT, 68.8% completion rate allowed, 111.3 passer rating allowed (6 games played) | 38.4 PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $1.95M/yr
I’ve already written at length about the possibility of the Falcons reuniting with Desmond Trufant after his cut by the Lions, but it’s worth mentioning his name again here. Trufant had a very unlucky 2020 season, as he suffered a hamstring injury in the first game of the season that followed him throughout the year. He tried to play whenever he could, but the results simply weren’t good. Detroit made the decision to cut ties for cap relief.
However, it’s important to note that Trufant is only a year removed from a quality, 4 INT 2019 season with the Falcons. He’ll obviously be very cheap coming off a 2020 season with only 6 starts. Atlanta will likely have to take some swings at affordable, risky free agents, and Trufant might be a good one to try. If healthy, he can provide at least CB2-level play alongside second-year cornerback A.J. Terrell. If he can’t stay healthy, the Falcons are probably only out a near veteran minimum contract. It’s a gamble worth taking for a cash-strapped team like Atlanta.
2020 team: Titans
2020 stats: 55 total tackles, 2 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 6.8% missed tackle rate | 2 PD, 68.6% completion rate allowed, 103.3 passer rating allowed | 65.5 PFF grade
2020 OTC valuation: $6.6M/yr
One of the NFL’s premier slot cornerbacks and a first-team All-Pro in 2018, Desmond King was unceremoniously traded from the Chargers to the Titans for just a sixth-round pick midway through the 2020 season in one of the most puzzling moves of the year. Despite having to change defenses after six games, King still put together a solid season overall and started nine game for the Titans after the trade.
King is one of the NFL’s most versatile nickel defenders. He’s a dangerous blitzer, a strong run defender, and a quality coverage player. King was also an All-Pro returner during the 2018 season, when he averaged 13.8 yards per punt return and added a punt return TD. I doubt he’ll get the kind of money OTC thinks ($6.6M/yr) in a cap-strapped offseason flooded with mid-range veterans. King could be a logical addition for the Falcons who could start at CB and at returner.
There are quite a few other depth players the Falcons could look at in free agency. Former Falcons cornerbacks Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Darqueze Dennard are both likely to be veteran minimum signings, and both can start and/or backup multiple spots. Former Lions cornerback/wide receiver/returner Jamal Agnew makes a ton of sense for Atlanta as a depth signing who can play a key role on special teams. Atlanta also has ERFA Tyler Hall who could return on a minimum contract.
I hope you enjoyed the latest episode in our 2021 Falcons Free Agency series! Please leave your comments below and let me know what other types of breakdowns you’d like to see. If you haven’t already, be sure to Like the video and Subscribe to our YouTube channel!