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Making the leap: Can Brayden Lenius and Dee Alford go from CFL stars to contributors for the Falcons?

Five days after the season ended, the Falcons signed Lenius and Alford to future contracts. Both CFL standouts have an opportunity to make the big transition.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to be disappointed by a team that is clearly rebuilding. While Arthur Smith doesn’t want to hear it, there is no hiding from the truth that the Falcons are in exactly that kind of rebuilding mode. A roster as flawed and limited as what they had in 2021 indicated that. Despite the many additions this offseason, it’s not clear that has changed in 2022.

Even fter the failed, desperate pursuit of Deshaun Watson, trading away Matt Ryan, and a flurry of free agent signings to go with an influx of young talent from the draft, Falcons still seem to be in the same position as a team years away from being a legitimate contender. There aren’t many proven-to-be above average players on the Falcons roster, and as I wrote recently, the team not having many young players step up last season was the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise forgettable season. That has to change this year.

If it’s going to, it will be due to a well-regarded draft class and possibly some of the team’s more unique offseason additions. The front office is looking to get this team back to contention as quickly as possible. Signing two former CFL stars could be a great way to do that via low-risk, potentially high-reward moves.

Brayden Lenius and Dee Alford were both standout players last season up north. When looking at Lenius’ frame and contested catch skills, it makes perfect sense why Smith would be interested in giving him a shot. Alford’s competitiveness and ball skills make him an intriguing prospect for what has become a crowded cornerback group. The front office is hoping they can make the leap similar to recent former CFL standouts like Andrew Hawkins and Brandon Browner. Together, the two offer intriguing summer stories and the possibility of bolstering a roster in need of the help.

A big body in a group of big body pass catchers

One of the more notable differences in watching Smith’s offense last season came from how he utilized a severely limited wide receiving group. There wasn’t a capable big wide receiver on the roster. While Russell Gage is fairly consistent at making contested catches, his game is based on creating separation rather than using his frame to make plays.

The passing game in Tennessee during Smith’s tenure as offensive coordinator featured two large wide receivers in A.J. Brown and Corey Davis. Both players know how to use their massive frames and produce explosive plays after the catch. Smith wants to have pass catchers who can win 50/50 balls with their big catch radius and physicality. Before drafting Drake London, signing Auden Tate, and trading for Bryan Edwards, they added a former CFL star to start the push for bigger playmakers.

Based on his 40-yard dash at the 2019 Canadian national combine, Lenius will likely play tight end, along with lining up on the outside to potentially create mismatches. His tape consists of primarily making contested catches and shielding defenders away in the red zone to score touchdowns. At six-foot-five, the former Washington Huskie is well-experienced at battling with defenders to make plays downfield. That could come in handy for a team that struggled mightily at times in the red zone.

For Lenius to make the roster and prove to be more than a contributor on special teams, he will need to showcase his versatility in being an in-line tight end. It’s unlikely he can be a full-time receiver due to his lack of speed. That means being able to hold his own as a blocker, and it also means handling linebackers engaging with him at the line of scrimmage when running routes as an in-line tight end.

The opening is there for him behind Kyle Pitts and Anthony Firkser, especially over the long haul. One thing Smith doesn’t hesitate to do is switch up formations and use power looks. Whether it’s utilizing three tight ends to create mismatches or putting him alongside Pitts, Lenius has enough talent to think he could end up producing a few memorable splash plays if he proves that he can adapt to different roles this summer.

A battle-tested cornerback added to an ultra-talented cornerback group

As intriguing as Lenius is, Alford looks to be the more pro-ready out of the two players. His journey is quite remarkable, as he’s gone from proving himself as an all-conference cornerback at Tusculum in Division II to winning multiple Grey Cups with Winnipeg in the CFL. No matter the obstacles, he has risen to the occasion at every opportunity.

What immediately stands out in Alford’s game are his ball skills and route recognition. The former all-CFL divisional team cornerback consistently puts himself in a position to make plays by reading opposing quarterback’s eyes and maintaining his composure in man coverage. His ability to play tight coverage without ever getting grabby or panicky is impressive. There were moments in the CFL when he was tested downfield and didn’t allow the wide receiver to beat him at the catch point. Whenever a quarterback targeted him, his hands were usually around the ball.

His winning pedigree deserves acknowledgement. Handling a multitude of responsibilities and being expected to shut down his side of the field every game in that breakout 2021 season speaks volumes of how quickly he built himself up in Canada. The edginess he plays with set the tone for his teammates to develop into the most feared defense in the league. Alford didn’t shy away from big moments in Winnipeg, and that will certainly be needed in Atlanta as this team grows.

Alford joins a team that is firmly set at the top three cornerback spots. A.J. Terrell is being rightfully included in the best cornerback in the league conversations. Casey Heyward is coming off a resurgent year in Las Vegas and brings much-needed experience to a young secondary. Isaiah Oliver was having an impressive season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Despite it being clearly a position of strength for the Falcons, you can never have enough quality cornerbacks on your roster. Alford could definitely earn his place on the roster as the fourth or fifth corner, competing with Darren Hall and a slew of new offseason additions.

Similar to Lenius, Alford will need to prove his versatility and contribute on special teams. He did that in college, when he was Tusculum’s punt returner. That skillset could prove to be valuable in giving the coaching staff something to think about when making personnel decisions. If Alford is as good as his tape showed as a corner and can offer big-play potential as a returner, along with proving to be a capable contributor on special teams, there should be a place for him on the roster.

How he performs during training camp and preseason will be one of the more exciting things to monitor this summer for a team with a ton of intriguing competitions. A childhood Falcons fan making the team after playing Division II in college and the CFL before getting to the NFL would make for one astonishing, unforgettable story.

As I wrote earlier, the Falcons still have considerable work ahead of them to become a legitimate contender. Hitting on even one of Lenius and Alford and having a former CFL star turn into a significant NFL contributor could help this team get to where they want to go more quickly.