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Falcons 2022 free agent targets: Cornerback

Atlanta’s more likely to go shopping for a starter than a reserve, and they will have options.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons have a young secondary I’m actually pretty excited about. A.J. Terrell is a special cornerback, Darren Hall looks like at least a very good reserve at the position, and Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins showed flashes that I’m hopeful they can build on in 2022. That doesn’t mean this team can just dust their hands and move ahead with their current group, however.

We looked at potential safety targets in free agency earlier this week, and now we turn our eyes to cornerback, where the team needs to sign or draft a credible starter outside opposite A.J. Terrell and settle on their nickel of the present, whether that’s a re-signed Isaiah Oliver, Richie Grant, or someone else entirely. Let’s look at some of the potential cornerback targets in the marketplace at the moment, and be sure to add your preferred free agents to the discussion if they’re not on this list.

High-end starters

  • Stephon Gilmore, 31
  • J.C. Jackson, 26
  • Carlton Davis, 25
  • Bryce Callahan, 29
  • Patrick Peterson, 29
  • Chris Harris Jr., 33
  • Steven Nelson, 29
  • Casey Hayward Jr., 32
  • Charvarius Ward, 27

You could not go wrong with Gilmore, who remains a tremendous player despite being on the wrong side of 30. You’ll just have to pay a lot to get him to Atlanta, which may not be in the plans for a team that still doesn’t figure to exactly be flush with cash in 2022.

That said, if you’re going to shovel out for an A.J. Terrell complement, you may as well target Davis or Jackson. The Falcons are very familiar with Davis’s growth as they’ve watched him become a very good starter in Tampa Bay, and poaching him would strengthen their cornerback group and weaken the Buccaneers, making it a true win-win. Jackson is just a terrific player who is ultimately what people think Trevon Diggs was this past season: An opportunistic ballhawk who is also good enough in coverage to avoid that being the sole strength of his game.

I’ve thought Steven Nelson would be a nice fit for this team for a minute, and the Falcons will have another opportunity to sign him this offseason. He’ll be semi-affordable after a solid but unspectacular year with the Eagles.

Hayward technically belongs on the stopgap starter list—you’re probably not signing him to a long-term deal—but he’s good enough to make him worthy of pursuit.

Stopgap starters/high-end reserves

  • Fabian Moreau, 28
  • Isaiah Oliver, 25
  • Ahkello Witherspoon, 27
  • Jason Verrett, 30
  • Donte Jackson, 26
  • Anthony Averett, 27
  • Jimmy Smith, 33
  • Darious Williams, 29
  • Mike Hughes, 24
  • M.J. Stewart, 26
  • Tre Herndon, 25
  • Eli Apple, 26
  • Artie Burns, 27
  • Robert Alford, 33

Moreau came over from Washington last year on a very affordable deal and started 16 games, offering largely solid play. He was only a part-time starter every year before that, is just 28 years old and showed he can be a credible and well-rounded player in 2021, so he figures to be more expensive this year and may not be back.

Oliver, however, may well be. Coming off a major injury, Oliver’s best play might be to sign a one-year pact with Atlanta to lock down the nickel spot and build up to a big payday in 2023, given that he’s young and was excelling in that role for Dean Pees before he went down. I have to think there will be mutual interest from both sides assuming he’s healthy, and I’m penciling him in as a re-signing for this Atlanta team.

Witherspoon might be my ideal signing if the Falcons don’t draft a corner with an eye on having him start outside. He’s never played a full season—he was only in nine games in 2021 and started just three—but he has the size, talent and is still young enough to have some strong years ahead of him. I believe in him as a starter in this defense, and I think Terrell, Witherspoon, Isaiah Oliver, Darren Hall, Avery Williams and perhaps a draft pick would be a really strong group for 2022.

Verrett really belongs on the other list above, but he’s just never healthy, and thus counting on him to be a high-end starter is something you simply can’t do. He is a tremendous talent but has never played a full season and has played in just one game three out of the last four seasons. I’d still take the shot.

I linked Averett to the Falcons because he has some ties to Atlanta assistant director of college scouting Dwaune Jones, and he’s coming off a solid year when pressed into action as a starter.

Hughes was just put in a washing machine by Gabriel Davis in the AFC Conference Championship and has had multiple frustrating lapses in coverage so far in his young career, so he’d be someone you’d add if you thought you could help him progress his game and iron out those issues. He’s young enough for that to be worth a shot.

Apple recently trash-talked both Julio Jones and the city of New Orleans on Twitter, making it clear he’s angling to be signed by the Falcons.

Reserves/special teamers

  • Maurice Canady, 27
  • Arthur Maulet, 28
  • Corn Elder, 27
  • Ryan Neal, 26
  • Isaac Yiadom, 26
  • Keion Crossen, 26
  • Greg Mabin, 28
  • Danny Johnson, 30

The Falcons have Kendall Sheffield (though he could be a cap casualty), Darren Hall and Avery Williams under contract, signed Canadian Football League star Dee Alford and others to reserve/future deals, and could always look to add an upside pick late in the draft. I don’t think they’re going to be in the market for deep reserves, is what I’m getting at, but they could look at one of the names above if they do decide to go that route.

I might keep an eye on Johnson in particular, given that Kyle Smith in the Falcons front office knows him well, he’s a seasoned special teamer, and he’s been both a solid tackler and decent in coverage when called upon to fill in as a reserve.

Which free agent cornerback(s) would you want to add?