Greetings! As the 2013 NFL season approaches, it is time to take a deeper look at what to expect from the Atlanta Falcons. In the first of a nine-part preview, we’re going to break down the new-look Atlanta secondary. Let’s go.
In 2012, this was a position of great scrutiny for the Falcons. Dunta Robinson was a whipping boy for all of Falcons nation throughout his time in Atlanta (after coming over from Houston), and Brent Grimes was supposed to be the savior after a breakout year in 2011. You know how the story ends, as Grimes played just one game last season before a big-time injury, and Robinson toiled in obscurity throughout the team’s run to the NFC Title Game. Now, we have some new blood mixed with one holdover from the “old guard”.
The leader of the cornerback unit this season is veteran Asante Samuel, and he is the definite starter on the left side. Samuel is a 10-year veteran who arrived in Atlanta for the 2012 season after 4 years in Philadelphia, and he performed well in 15 games. Samuel is unquestionably the “big play” guy in the unit, with 50 career interceptions, and while he certainly takes some unnecessary risks at times, he’s probably an above-average corner even at 32 years old.
As of this writing, he will be opposed on the right side by rookie 1st-round pick Desmond Trufant. Trufant has good size for the position (6-feet, 190 pounds) and the kind of tremendous athletic ability you would picture in a 1st-round pick. The biggest strength of his game entering the draft was his “NFL readiness”, and that has been on display throughout training camp. In addition, there is family pedigree there as his brother Marcus is a long-time NFL corner, and I would expect Trufant to hold his own throughout his rookie year, even if there is a bump or two along the way.
Because everyone uses more than 2 cornerbacks in today’s NFL, these guys are almost like additional starters. Robert McClain was a revelation last season, basically appearing from nowhere to become an integral part of the secondary. In 15 games with Atlanta, he produced 61 tackles (a staggering number from the cornerback spot) and 10 pass deflections. He is certainly undersized at 5-foot-9, but he’ll often be matched up against the opposition’s slot receiver as the Nickelback, and if McClain can replicate last season’s production, I think any Falcons’ fan would take that production and run.
The other presumptive contributors are 2nd-round pick Robert Alford and 4th-year pro Dominique Franks. Many believed that Alford got a “bump” in his draft stock thanks to his excellent special teams pedigree as a kick returner, but he has shown himself to be a potential asset on defense in the early going. He ran a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and that top-end speed should allow him to make up for some rookie mistakes. In the case of Franks, he has been the brunt of some intensely negative commentary during his time in Atlanta, and frankly, there is a reason he is #5 out of the 5 corners we’ve mentioned. With that said, it’s nice to have a player with 30 career games as “insurance”, and that’s where we are with Franks.
This is a group that we should know a lot about, as both starters return from the 2012 team. Both are highly productive players in their own right, and expectations are fairly high.
William Moore has developed a big-time reputation among Falcons fans, and with good reason. The starting strong safety is a big-play guy who can deliver massive hits while still being effective in coverage. The only real “knock” on Moore at this stage is a propensity to get injured (12 games in each of the past 2 seasons), but when he’s on the field, the production is there. He posted a career-high 75 tackles to go along with 4 interceptions in 2012, and if he can put together a more full season in terms of games played, he could be a Pro Bowl level player.
Alongside Moore is Thomas Decoud at the free safety spot. Decoud isn’t quite the pure talent that Moore is, but he’s been incredibly durable, and in 2012, he made a defined leap in terms of quality of play. The 28-year-old from Cal has appeared in 64 consecutive games for the Falcons, and last season, he had a career-high 6 interceptions while cutting down on the mental mistakes that had plagued him in his first 4 seasons. Decoud will never be an “elite” player at free safety, but he’s come a long way from the guy that many Falcons fans screamed at in his early career.
If we have to see these guys, it isn’t encouraging. Shann Schillinger is a special-teams standout, but he would be incredibly limited in terms of coverage skills if he was placed into a full-time role at safety. The primary backup at the strong safety spot is 2nd-year player Charles Mitchell, but the former Mississippi State product contributed just 1 tackle in 10 games last season, and we haven’t seen enough of him for any real declarations.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the secondary is a strength for the Falcons, but I don’t believe it is the deathly weakness that some believe. With the quality safety play and the “know what you’re getting” production from Asante Samuel, this group is likely going to hinge on the play of the two rookie cornerbacks. However, the talent is certainly there in the secondary and if the pass rush will help them out a bit (we’ll talk about this in a few installments), this could be a league-average or better unit.