Falcons training camp is officially underway and the dead zone clouds are gone for good. Most of the roster is set with stability and a veteran presence, but there are a few areas that are giving fans concern as the 2013 season approaches. Cornerback is definitely an interesting position to keep an eye on. Dimitroff significantly upgraded the CB corps in the draft after he moved up to take Desmond Trufant in the 1st round and followed it up by taking Robert Alford in the second round.
In addition to keeping veteran Asante Samuel and the surprise of 2012 Robert McClain, the Falcons finally have a good amount of young athleticism and talent. The big question is whether or not Dimitroff’s apparent philosophy to build from the outside-in will actually work. How good do the cornerbacks have to be when their is a major sense of panic that the pass rush will not get it done? A look at the Falcons cornerback corps heading into 2013:
PFF = ProFootballFocus Statistics (subscription required)
2012 PFF Stats: -0.9 overall grade (67 out of 113 CBs); +5.3 coverage grade (27th out of 113); -7.7 in run defense (dead last, 113th out of 113 CBs); 8th out of 113 vs. QB Rating; 53.2% receptions caught (23rd out of 113)
The former All-Pro cornerback had a tale of two stats in 2012. He was one of the best cornerbacks in the league in pass coverage. Besides Robert McClain in the nickel, Samuel was the best cover corner the Falcons had. Bringing him in was definitely a needed a jolt to the Falcons past coverage woes. However, he not only was lackluster in defending the run, he was actually dead last out of all 113 cornerbacks in the NFL. He generally had a pretty good overall year, at least in terms of actual coverage.
He brought a much needed tone of leadership and Super Bowl experience to the secondary. The issue is, though, how much does he have left in the tank? He is currently 32 and will be turning 33 in early January. He was as tough as nails the way he fought against his nagging injuries (his refusing to come out when his shoulder was dislocated was epic). Perhaps that was one reason that Dimitroff went with not one but two CBs, considering that this might be Samuel’s last year as a Falcon.
2012 PFF Stats: +10.6 overall grade (12 out of 113 CBs); +9.7 coverage grade (10th out of 113); -1.6 in run defense (88th out of 113); 70.2% QB Rating (20th out of 113); 64.2% receptions (75th out of 113)
McClain was the major pleasant surprise of 2013. He had bounced around the NFL as a practice squad player before beating out former 5th round pick Dominique Franks a move that surprised many fans. McClain was thrust into action very early on after Brent Grimes was lost for the season in the very first game of the season. McClain surely didn’t disappoint and took full advantage of his opportunity.
The former UConn product not only did well, he was one of the best overall corners in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus. In fact, he was ranked 12th overall and 10th in pass coverage out of all 113 cornerbacks in the league. He was easily the Falcons best overall, at least according to PFF. Some of that may be due to his position of nickel and seeing a good bit less snaps than either Samuel or Dunta Robinson. However, he has to be considered a regular starter since he was on the field more than MLB Akeem Dent.
Even though there looks to be great competition from Trufant and Alford, its hard to believe McClain won’t be manning the nickel again in 2013. The question remains about whether he can repeat his success with a rookie on one side and an aging vet on the other.
Any rookie starting for the first time will always see some rough patches at some point or another. But cornerback has to be one of the absolute toughest positions overall in the NFL, especially for a rookie. The new young and athletic CB tandem, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, are likely competing for the same CB starting position left vacant by the departed Dunta Robinson. Early reports from training camp uhave seen both rookie CBs, especially Trufant, having a pretty rocky start. That’s to be expected when you’re going up against two of the best receivers in the NFL, Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Even though it’s a lite understandable that the two CBs are taking their lumps vs. two All-Pro receivers, it does portend what is likely to come in 2013. The Falcons face a slew of excellent passing QB’s in Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Bees twice, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick, among others. You can bet those QBs and offensive coordinators will be picking on those young guys early and often. How well they adapt to the NFL level may ultimately determine the Falcons success in 2013.
Barring a major shock, it seems as though the first 4 spots are pretty well locked up with Samuel, McClain, Trufant, and Alford. The fifth and final spot, however, is as wide open as they come. The battle seems to be between 4 players: Dominique Franks, Peyton Thompson, Terrence Johnson, and Saeed Lee. Even though the player may not see the field a ton save for special teams, look no further than McClain in 2012 to know a potential gem may be in the ranks.
Standard logic would hold that Franks should be the lead candidate to win the job since he’s been on the roster one way or another since he was drafted in the 5th round in 2010. After showing some initial promise and hope that he would develop into a solid CB in the Falcons rotation, he actually lost his roster spot to McClain and even cleared waivers from all the other teams. After Tim Toone and made the team and was injured combined with Brent Grimes injury, the Falcons brought back Franks for his 3rd time. His 2012 tenure was rocky and saw him as the last option in the cornerback rotation. When he was on the field, he joined Chris Owens as having an overall negative grade and poor coverage production. From a pure experience perspective, Franks will have a leg up. But since he was technically on the outside looking in last year at this time, that wouldn’t seem to be much of an advantage.
Peyton Thompson and Terrence Johnson
Many fans favorite to win the last spot is last year’s undrafted free agent Peyton Thompson. He reminds some fans of Brent Grimes: a smaller type of corner who is extremely athletic and had very good statistics at San Jose State. He spent a year on the practice squad and is primed to follow in the footsteps of Robert McClain, grabbing a hold an opportunity and never looking back. He certainly would continue the trend of developing an extremely young and talented secondary.
Thompson may no longer be a dark-horse candidate since so many fans are aware of him and pulling for him. The new dark-horse player might actually be Terrence Johnson. The former California Bear went undrafted in 2010 and went without a team after being cut by the Patriots. He hung around and caught on with the Colts in 2011. He actually played in 10 games for them and even started twice that year. The CB has drawn early praise in camp and may be well in the game to take the final spot.
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