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Who will step up until Jeff Okudah returns?

The Falcons could be without their presumed starting cornerback for the summer and possibly the early season, and that leaves them to choose between other options.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Rookie Minicamp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries shake up the depth chart. Even with the welcome news that Jeff Okudah’s injury should only keep him out into the beginning or the season, the Falcons now have to figure out their contingency plan and determine who will be up to the task of filling in for Okudah should he miss Week 1 or perhaps a couple of weeks after that.

The team traded for Okudah to give themselves a capable young starter opposite A.J. Terrell, figuring a change of scenery would help him realize his immense potential after an up-and-down stint in Detroit. Without him, the Falcons would seem to be in a similar spot to where they were last year: Scrambling to find a capable starter out of what they have on hand and what might be available.

The big difference between this year and last year is the caliber of options available, or at least their potential, and thankfully Okudah’s status. Drafting Clark Phillips, adding Mike Hughes and Tre Flowers, and still having the likes of Darren Hall and Cornell Armstrong available figures to make a difference for the team. With that in mind, here are the options if Okudah does wind up being unavailable early on in the season.

Tre Flowers

He’s up first for Okudah’s snaps at practice, so that’s a good enough reason to have Flowers atop the list at the moment.

A tall (6’3”), physical cornerback who had a couple of legitimately strong seasons early in his career, Flowers has more recently been a backup. A college safety who converted for the Seahawks, Flowers brings toughness and size as well as multiple seasons of starting experience to bear.

While he was a bit of a forgotten name with the Falcons adding so much talent at corner, the fact that he’s running with starters with Okudah out tells us this is probably his role to lose. We’ll see how he fares in preseason action.

Clark Phillips III

Phillips figured to be in the mix for the nickel role his rookie season, but he can play outside quite capably. The reason so many analysts seemed to fall in love with Phillips and think the Falcons got a steal is because he’s a versatile, smart cornerback with a knack for interfering with throws.

Phillips should be first up if he’s ready for the role, because he has the most upside of any player currently on the roster and is clearly someone the team is eyeing for major snaps in the near future. The team may want a more established veteran so they can bring along Phillips at their own pace, but the hope is that he’ll have the kind of preseason that forces the team to re-consider that and gives us faith in Phillips thriving if Okudah does miss more time.

Mike Hughes

The other player in the mix with Flowers at the moment is Hughes, who has played both outside and at nickel in his NFL career to this point. Hughes is coming off a rough season but is young and figures to be a borderline lock for this team given his experience and ability to field punts, so if he outduels Flowers this summer he could briefly take his former Detroit teammate’s role as a starter opposite Terrell. The likelier outcome is that he’s effectively CB4, ready to step in if anyone falters, but the talent and youth (he’s just 26 years old) are there for Hughes if he can prove last year was just an aberration.

Darren Hall

Firmly on the roster bubble, Hall is a tenacious cornerback who found himself benched down the stretch last year after a starting stint. With a (mostly) new defensive coaching staff, Hall has a chance to make a strong impression and remains a talented player, but the Falcons have added so many options that it’s going to be tough for him to push his way back into this conversation. A big preseason is his best bet, but at least he’s fared well in training camp thus far.

Cornell Armstrong

Armstrong is a longshot because like Hall, he occupied this role a year ago and did not play well enough for the team to sign up for a full season of it. He could push his way into that role with a stellar summer, but again, he’s a longshot.

Dee Alford

I don’t think the team is likely to view Alford as a serious contender for a full-time role outside, but that’s primarily because I think he’s the favorite for the nickel role today. He should be a major player on this defense regardless.

Outside options

If no one from the list above shines and Okudah is out for longer than expected, the team will almost certainly look outside the organization. There are potential trades to be mined, pickups to explore after the huge wave of roster cutdowns, and so forth. I wouldn’t expect Atlanta to mortgage the future significantly to grab another starter—they’ve vowed not to be all about 2023—but they won’t go into the season without a starter they feel comfortable with. They also should not.

Who will be starting opposite Terrell in Week 1, assuming Okudah misses at least one regular season game?