With the team’s unexpected trade for ex-Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah on Tuesday, Atlanta added more young talent to a crowded depth chart. The Falcons currently have 12 cornerbacks under contract—that’s 13% of the 90 man roster—and four-to-five of those players should be considered strong candidates for three starting jobs.
There is much to consider regarding Okudah, whose fifth year option can be picked up by May if the Falcons want to do so, and we’ll dive into that a little later. For now, though, let’s just get a sense of where the depth chart currently stands.
Who is starting?
The only certainty is that A.J. Terrell will be perched atop the depth chart, where he belongs. Coming off an uneven season featuring some injuries, Terrell was still far-and-away the team’s best cornerback, and he should be counted upon again to deal with other teams’ #1 options.
After that things get murky fast. My presumption would be that the team would like to start Okudah opposite Terrell, given that he’s just 24 years old, has a physical style that’s in line with the way Ryan Nielsen will want his defensive backs playing football, can be brought back either with the fifth year option or a new deal in 2024, and they just swung a trade for him. They also have a steady, capable veteran corner in Casey Hayward, a inside/outside option in recent free agent addition Mike Hughes, and an intriguing young nickel cornerback candidate in Dee Alford. Oh, and young corners Darren Hall and Cornell Armstrong both made starts last year and are in the mix for roles.
It’s certainly possible that the Falcons intend to let everyone duke it out behind Terrell, roll with the top two options, and keep the others as depth to ensure a strong, deep cornerback group. Given that Okudah is fairly expensive, Hughes signed a solid deal, and Hayward is making good money, it’s hard to imagine the team electing to keep all three under contract when some of that cash could go toward shoring up other positions where the team’s depth is more formidable.
Logically, that brings us to...
The Casey Hayward conundrum
And now we get into the question with Hayward. A short time ago, it seemed the Falcons were certain to roll with him again as a starter, but the moves for Okudah and Hughes have cast some doubt on that. Hayward is fresh off an injury that cost him most of the 2022 season and the team saves $5 million and carries a fairly meager $2 million dead money hit if they cut him. If they’re looking for a little more cap space to work with and to relieve the logjam at cornerback, he is easily the most logical candidate to part with.
All that said, Hayward is good. Heading into his age 34 season there will be concerns about his ability to stay healthy, but Hayward had missed just three games since 2013 before an injury wiped out most of last year, and he was fresh off a 2021 season with the Raiders where he was characteristically stingy in coverage. Okudah’s upside is still significant and Hughes is a player the Falcons obviously like, but Hayward is the more established player and if healthy is likely to be better than either of them in coverage. It’s not a risk-free thing to drop him and roll with the team’s other options.
That said, the team’s brisk stacking of players at cornerback suggest that Hayward could be headed out, and if they add to the room via the draft I think that all but seals the deal. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of him last year.
Who sticks as reserves?
If Hayward does depart and Terrell, Okudah, and Hughes are the team’s starting trio, it still leaves the question of who else sticks on the depth chart out of the remaining seven players currently there. Summer competition will help decide that, but in my mind there are four players to keep an eye on, assuming the Falcons don’t draft anyone else.
The first is Alford, who should at least be in the mix for the nickel cornerback job. In his limited playing time last year, the CFL product looked pretty good in coverage and showcased the requisite physicality despite his size to stick around in Nielsen’s defense, and he’s young and affordable. As competition for Hughes and a fallback option for the veteran should he not win the competition, Alford feels like the strongest bet to stick around.
Cornell Armstrong might be the next safest bet. He wound up being the player the Falcons relied on as a starter down the stretch after other options like Darren Hall and Rashad Fenton faltered, and while I don’t think anyone’s keen to see him get another extended look as a starter, he clearly is someone the Falcons feel good about as a reserve.
Darren Hall is likely to be in the mix as well. He acquitted himself well in spots starts and extended time in his rookie season, but it was much more of a mixed bag for Hall in 2022 when pressed into action as a starter. For his career, Hall is seeing well over 70% of the passes thrown to his man completed, and he’ll need to make strides in 2023 to seize any sort of significant role on a crowded depth chart. Still, he feels like a pretty safe bet to make the team so long as they’re holding on to six cornerbacks.
Finally, Jamal Peters is worth keeping an eye on, though he may be ticketed for a practice squad spot. This year’s CFL import could wind up sticking at cornerback or safety, and is fresh off a season where he led the league north of the border with six interceptions. His size, strength, and ballhawking ability figure to keep him around in some capacity, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can push his way onto the roster at the expense of someone else.
There are some interesting young players further down the depth chart—2022 practice squad cornerback Matt Hankins is among them—but it feels likely that the four players I’ve listed above will be in the mix for the final two or three spots on the depth chart at cornerback.
That would leave us with a group that looks something like this, which would be one of the younger groups in the NFL:
- CB1: A.J. Terrell
- CB2: Jeff Okudah
- CB3: Mike Hughes
- CB4: Dee Alford
- CB5: Cornell Armstrong
- CB6: Darren Hall
I’m not certain how quickly clarity will come to the cornerback group, which may well end up loaded with options well into the summer the way the wide receiver group was a year ago. With Okudah and Hughes joining up and young players galore set to fight for spots on the depth chart, the biggest question is when and if we’ll know if Casey Hayward is sticking around. The Falcons should have a pretty deep group regardless, but whether they fully intend to embrace the youth movement at corner or count on Hayward as a veteran starter for one more season likely won’t be answered until after the NFL Draft.