Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant (21) reacts to a play against the St. Louis Rams during the game at Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Rams 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons season preview 2014: Defensive backs

The 2014 NFL season is almost here, and it is time to preview this season’s edition of the Atlanta Falcons. In part three, we took an in-depth look at the team’s secondary.

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In our preview of the defensive line, there were several references to pass rush, and the effect that it can have on the overall performance of any team’s secondary. While that is undeniably the case, teams in today’s NFL must be blessed with a multitude of quality options at the back end of a defense, as opposing clubs will undoubtedly attack with an aerial assault from beginning to end. With that, the Falcons have invested heavily at the cornerback position in recent seasons, and with that push, the secondary’s overall performance has nowhere to go but up in 2014.

For reference, Atlanta finished 21st in the NFL in pass defense last season, allowing 243.6 yards per contest, and things were even worse with regard to efficiency, as opposing offenses completed 66.6% of their passes for the full campaign, which ranked 28th in the league. Let’s glance at the specific positions.

Cornerbacks

Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Robert McClain, Josh Wilson, Javier Arenas/Ricardo Allen

Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford make up the starting cornerback duo as they enter their sophomore season, and Atlanta’s first two draft picks from 2013 are poised for a breakout. Trufant was a member of the NFL’s “top 25 under 25″ prior to the season, and after a season in which in made 70 tackles and 17 pass deflections, many believe that he will make “the leap” to actual stardom in 2014. Alford wasn’t quite as productive as Trufant in his rookie campaign, but he got a late start to the party by virtue of opportunity, and overall, he was solid when called upon with 40 tackles and 8 pass deflections. There is little reason to suggest that Alford will be as good as Trufant (at any point, really), but if he can be an average to above-average starter, that is a significant win.

Behind the “big two”, things aren’t terribly settled. Robert McClain took a few reps at free safety during training camp, but he is the default “starter” at nickelback, and he has been decent in his brief Falcons career. Josh Wilson doesn’t really profile as a pure nickelback, but he could be the real depth behind Alford on the outside, and it never hurts to have a legitimate veteran. The final spot in the rotation will likely come down to Javier Arenas, who has been a full-time starter and kick returner with the Chiefs in his career, and Ricardo Allen, who is an extremely raw prospect as a rookie.

Safeties

William Moore, Dwight Lowery, Dez Southward, Kemal Ishmael, Sean Baker/Tyrell Johnson

William Moore is the name that you know from this group, and while he isn’t a dynamic player (by any stretch) in coverage, Mike Nolan’s new defense could be highly beneficial in putting him in positions to make plays by flying around and hitting. He is easily the most talented player at the safety position, and frankly, the only one with any certainty surrounding his play for this season. Dwight Lowery arrived as a stopgap option at free safety, and if he is healthy, the safe money is that he will be the starter at the position. However, the reason that he was available in free agency was due to health and age, and those issues don’t change.

I’m quite high on Dez Southward, even though he may not be ready to contribute in a meaningful way immediately. It will be interesting to see how his skills translate, but he was productive at the collegiate level, and Thomas Dimitroff invested heavily in his services as a third-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Finally, Ishmael seems to be a relative lock to make the roster, but the final spot appears to be a battle between Sean Baker, who was on the practice squad throughout last season, and Tyrell Johnson, who was recently signed as another veteran option off the scrap heap.

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Quite honestly, I am not worried about the cornerback spot. Trufant has the makings of a legitimate Pro Bowl option at the position, and between Alford, McClain, Wilson and potentially Arenas, there is enough to put together a solid enough group. Safety is another story, however, as any injury to William Moore (a player who has missed 22 games over 5 seasons) could send the group into a tailspin with a gaping lack of depth.

Barring a massive leap from Alford and a speedy progression from Trufant, the secondary isn’t a “strength”, but it could certainly be league-average, which would be a solid upgrade from 2013. Stay tuned as we continue to preview the upcoming season.

Tags: Atlanta Falcons

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