We’re not that far away from training camp, which means it’s an excellent time to look at the state of some of the biggest position battles on the roster. We’re moving along to a position group where the competition will matter less than the health of the top option: Nickel cornerback.
There are several positions on this roster that will feature fierce competition, but to this point we haven’t ended up diving into those. The punter battle is likely settled after the signing of veteran option Bradley Pinion, Avery Williams and Cordarrelle Patterson figure to be walking into returner jobs (the latter if his role on offense isn’t all-consuming), and safety figures to go to Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins unless the team adds talent or the duo faceplants.
With nickel cornerback, we’re not really reversing that unsuspenseful trend. There’s a clear favorite for this job, and the question really is just whether he’ll be healthy enough to walk into the role for Week 1.
The recent history at nickel
There’s been plenty of change and tumult here as the nickel has become more and more a feature of the Falcons defense.
The dream of Atlanta fielding a defense with Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson, and Asante Samuel went by the wayside post-Grimes injury, paving the way for Robert McClain to get considerable work at nickel cornerback in 2012. McClain, Robert Alford, and Samuel all spent some time there in 2013, and both McClain and Alford were in the mix again in 2014. From there, Phillip Adams briefly took over the position in 2015 before the team hit on Brian Poole as an undrafted free agent, setting themselves up with a physical playmaker who held down the role for three very effective seasons from 2016 to 2018.
Since then, the change and tumult has defined the position. In 2019, Robert Alford’s departure and injuries to Desmond Trufant had the Falcons cycling through options, with Kendall Sheffield, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and others seeing time there. In 2020, Sheffield, Darqueze Dennard, Wreh-Wilson, and Isaiah Oliver all took turns in a deeply unsettled year. Last year, Oliver appeared set to finally provide some stability at the position, but an injury knocked him out early in the year and the Falcons wound up using Avery Williams, Darren Hall, and Richie Grant there throughout the year.
Continuity has not been a feature at nickel since Poole, in other words, and whether that changes this year will likely depend on how Oliver in particular fares.
Let’s take a closer look at who is vying for the job this summer.
Essentially, there is one clear favorite, a couple of young players with upside who should be considered in the mix, and a pair of veteran longshots for the role.
The early and easy favorite. Oliver’s NFL career to this point has been marked by ups and downs, but he began to find his footing with Raheem Morris at the helm in 2020 and was blossoming before our eyes in 2021 in the nickel role. Unfortunately, an injury guaranteed we wouldn’t get to see him truly thrive until 2022.
What we did see last year was encouraging. Oliver looked sharper in coverage and is a player extremely comfortable near the line of scrimmage, offering run support chops, glimpses of the kind of pass rushing ability we loved from Poole during his heyday, and After struggling for long stretches working outside, Oliver’s strengths showed up at nickel in his limited action, and Dean Pees and company were clearly excited about where his season was headed.
As Will McFadden said on Falcoholic Live recently, perhaps the biggest concern with Oliver is his ability to stick with lightning fast slot receivers, but he won’t have to exclusively face those players anyways with the number of large slot receivers leaguewide today. We’ll have to see how he fares over the course of a full season, but Oliver’s improving coverage instincts and proven physicality should make him an asset for this defense.
Health is the only thing that might hold him back, but by all accounts Oliver’s recovery is coming along. So long as he’s healthy enough to take the field Week 1, he’s your starter.
Last year’s late round pick was pressed into action earlier than the Falcons probably intended thanks to injury, and he wound up playing about a quarter of the defensive snaps. We saw rookie lapses as expected, but by and large Hall was a pleasant surprise, showing physicality and solid enough coverage chops both outside and inside to think he’ll be a reliable reserve at worst.
The fact that Hall looked a bit better inside and that the team really didn’t add a ton of direct competition for him suggests he’s the fallback option to watch for Oliver. The ideal role for Hall in this defense is probably a super substitution, given that he’s shown he can credibly fill both inside and outside, but I don’t think the Falcons will hesitate to turn to him for a little while if Oliver isn’t ready to go.
Alford’s an interesting addition for this football team, and a solid enough bet to make the roster given his obvious upside. He excelled in the CFL and the Falcons brought him over the border to compete for a role in a rebuilding cornerback group, with the early reports largely being positive.
He’s another player who has said he can play inside or outside, and versatility is welcome in this group. Alford’s stint in the CFL shows he has the requisite toughness and aggressiveness to make an impact, and he’s fresh off a season where he notched four interceptions. He’s an extreme dark horse candidate for the nickel role and would likely need both a slow recovery from Oliver and a standout summer to get it, but he’s a player worth keeping a close eye on.
A longshot, but one worth mentioning nonetheless. Ford figures to be a core special teamer if he makes the squad, and he’s reportedly been spending a little time at both cornerback and safety in the early going. He was pushing for the nickel cornerback job in Detroit last summer before being waived and landing in Denver, so he’s hardly a stranger to the competition. Obviously, his lack of impact and starts on defense to this point in his career suggest he’s going to need a stellar late July and August to really be in the picture.
Ultimately, Ford is likely competing for a fifth or sixth cornerback/fifth safety role with the next guy on this list, and his ability to contribute on special teams at a high level ought to keep him in it all summer. His competition for that role is probably...
Another longshot for this job, and a player who might be battling head-to-head with Ford for a roster spot.
Tabor’s a former second round pick who really hasn’t lived up to that draft status. The Falcons have already shown a willingness to try making it work with players who haven’t found huge success elsewhere but were once very highly regarded (see Cordarrelle Patterson last year and Rashaan Evans this year, among others). Tabor is still only 26 years old and could theoretically thrive with a new opportunity and a new coaching staff.
Tabor’s ability to play both corner and safety figures to help him get a roster spot if he can impress, but it’s likely only one of he and Ford will ultimately make the team.
Who wins the battle?
If Isaiah Oliver is healthy, it’s his job. I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to put it this plainly.
If Oliver is not 100% and someone else has to assume these duties to start the season, things get considerably more complicated. Hall would be my presumed favorite because he played fairly well last year in his opportunities and can credibly play nickel, but there could be a cascade effect if, say, Richie Grant doesn’t win a starting safety job where he could once again man nickel for a while. Expect Alford, Tabor, and Ford to be in the mix to some extent, as well, with all three potentially trying out for the last defensive back spot if (or when, optimistically) Oliver seals the job up.
All signs point to Oliver getting a second chance to prove he can be an above average starting nickel back in the NFL and for the Falcons in particular, and we’re rooting hard for him to excel.