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Falcons young corners have an extended audition for starting spot

Darren Hall and Dee Alford have a golden opportunity in front of them.

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

While most eyes will be rightfully focused on the rematch between Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell and Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja’Marr Chase this weekend, the other cornerback position may be equally worth keeping an eye on.

The Falcons will be down one of their starters in veteran Casey Hayward, who was put on injured reserve this week with a shoulder injury. There has been no official confirmation from the team, but ESPN sources suggest that Hayward may require surgery that could potentially be season-ending.

If that is the case, then the Falcons will have an extended audition opposite Terrell for the next 11 games to see if one of their young cornerbacks could be pegged as the long-term replacement for Hayward.

The two prime candidates to fill in for Hayward are Darren Hall and Dee Alford. It’s very likely that Hall will start this week as a replacement for Hayward, as he filled in admirably for him last week in the team’s win over the San Francisco 49ers. Hall broke up a deep ball to Brandon Aiyuk, and then a play later had another deflection that resulted in a Jaylinn Hawkins interception.

Hall’s strong play so far will face further tests to come

Hall has already been inserted at outside cornerback throughout the year due to a couple of nicks and bruises that have forced both Hayward and Terrell in and out of the lineup for limited periods. He has been very effective in those limited stints, earning the highest grades from Pro Football Focus among the team’s cornerbacks.

That is in part due to the opportunistic play that has been displayed multiple times. In addition to the aforementioned pass breakups against the 49ers, he also had a timely forced fumble and recovery against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2 that gave the Falcons a chance to take the lead in the closing minutes having climbed back from an unspeakable third-quarter deficit.

That particular play showcased both Hall’s resilience and effort, as he was initially beaten by Rams receiver Cooper Kupp on a third-down reception, but battled back to make the strip and then managed to recover the loose ball after it bounced away from several others.

That resilience will be crucial for Hall this weekend when he faces Bengals wideouts like Chase and Tee Higgins, who form one of the better receiving duos in the NFL. And things won’t get easier in the coming weeks when he face off against the likes of D.J. Moore, Mike Williams, and Terry McLaurin. It will be a trial by fire for whoever else suits up for the Falcons in Hayward’s stead, reminiscent of what we saw last year in the case of starting cornerback Fabian Moreau.

The team signed Hayward this past March to solidify that spot opposite Terrell due to Moreau’s inconsistent play. Moreau did an admirable job given the unrelenting circumstances, especially with opposing quarterbacks understanding there was a stark difference between him and Terrell and prompting them to throw at him constantly. That was especially true in the red zone.

Hall is no stranger to such treatment. In fact, according to PFF, he was the most targeted cornerback in the league last year on a per-snap basis among those that played at least 150 coverage snaps. However, that was mainly at nickel cornerback, where he shared reps with safety Richie Grant as the two filled in for Oliver upon his initial injury.

The nickel spot was new to Hall at the time, who spent the entirety of his career at San Diego State as an outside corner. When the Falcons selected Hall in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, it surprised some due to his smaller stature and lack of experience playing inside, leading many to project him as a late-round draft pick. He now has a golden opportunity to prove any lingering skeptics wrong by showing there is little-to-no dropoff between him and Hayward.

Alford offers alternative should Hall struggle

However, if Hall is not up to the task, the Falcons have another option in Alford. He excelled in the Canadian Football League as an outside corner, prompting the Falcons to sign him this past January. But since joining the Falcons, the team has asked Alford to play mostly in the slot as a fill-in for Isaiah Oliver as the latter slowly works his way back from a torn ACL he suffered a year ago. With Oliver now activated, he looks to be poised to regain his starting nickel cornerback spot, freeing up Alford to go back to playing his more natural role on the outside.

Alford’s time inside hasn’t been a complete waste, as he’s making his fair share of plays, including the game-sealing interception against the Cleveland Browns. Similarly to Hall, the Falcon can be hopeful that such ball-hawking abilities could shine through given an opportunity opposite Terrell.

Now is an opportune time for the 22-year-old Hall and soon-to-be 25-year-old Alford. Both are significantly younger than Hayward (33), whose two-year deal is essentially for one-year with an option since the Falcons can release him next offseason and save $5 million against the 2023 salary cap.

The Falcons are already flush with plenty of cap space, so such a move isn’t necessary. But given Hayward’s age, he was always just a stopgap option at cornerback. Eventually, the team would have to find someone younger to be the long-term starter opposite Terrell.

Developing young corners sets up Falcons for future success

Hall and/or Alford have a chance to prove the search should remain in-house. First, they must prove they can handle the ordeal that is certain to come with quarterbacks testing them in the coming weeks. Should they do so, it no only would mean that the Falcons have found another young defensive piece to build around, but it also saves them from needing to use another premium draft asset to find a starting corner.

The overwhelming pressure cornerbacks are constantly under forces most NFL teams to invest early-round picks in the position. Scroll down most depth charts and you’ll discover the vast majority of starting outside cornerbacks are first, second, or third-round picks.

If the Falcons are able to turn a former fourth-rounder in Hall or an undrafted player in Alford into a capable starter, it will not only save them one of those premium picks to use on another position of need in the future, but will also indicate this team’s ability to develop “lesser” talent. You’re already seeing that with other former Day 3 selections like linebacker Mykal Walker, safety Jaylinn Hawkins, center Drew Dalman, and defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham effectively holding down starting spots this season. Should Hall or Alford add their name to that list, it will again indicate that this team is on the right path to success.

Yet, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves, as every cornerback on the roster (even Terrell) will have a tough test this week against the Bengals. Still, a baptism by fire can be transformative.

What are your expectations for Hall and Alford for the remainder of this season? Would you prefer to see one or the other step into Hayward’s shoes? How effective do you think they’ll be this weekend against the Bengal? Sound off in the comments!