Atlanta Falcons' Young Secondary Could Be Their Downfall in 2013

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Atlanta Falcons' Young Secondary Could Be Their Downfall in 2013

The Atlanta Falcons drafted cornerbacks in the first and second rounds of the 2013 NFL draft to address an immediate need, but it is that very youth at the position that could be their downfall this season. 

Look, no one is saying that the Falcons shouldn't have addressed the cornerback position. However, using the draft to fix the secondary can often lead to trouble, and it's usually a multi-year commitment to player development.

This is a problematic reality for the Falcons, as their offense is geared to win now with older players like tight end Tony Gonzalez (37), running back Steven Jackson (30) and wide receiver Roddy White (31) manning key positions. 

The buzz surrounding the Falcons for much of this offseason has been centered around a pass rush that has materialized nicely with the arrival of defensive end Osi Umenyiora, among others, to bolster the front-7.

Another issue that has cropped up lately with the team is the offensive line—especially considering the season-ending injury to offensive tackle Mike Johnson. 

Yet, the biggest issue Falcons fans need to be wary about is their defensive backfield in 2013, because it could be the team's Achilles' heel in the way of their Super Bowl aspirations. 

 

Historically, Young Cornerbacks Need Time

Desmond Trufant was the third cornerback taken in the draft. Robert Alford was the ninth. It was a deep cornerback class in 2013, with plenty of talent left even after the selection of Alford. For 2013, however, Trufant and Alford could be the two best cornerbacks in the entire class and it might not matter.

Here is a selection of top cornerbacks in recent years, and their Pro Football Focus rankings in years one and two:

Young Cornerbacks Transitioning to the NFL
Name Team PFF Rating Year 1 PFF Rating Year 2 Change
Morris Claiborne Dallas Cowboys -4.5 ? ?
Stephon Gilmore Buffalo Bills -4.3 ? ?
Janoris Jenkins St. Louis Rams -7.9 ? ?
Patrick Peterson Arizona Cardinals -10.8 9.3 +20.1
Prince Amukamara New York Giants -2 0.5 +2.5
Chris Culliver San Francisco 49ers 1.6 5.7 +4.1
Joe Haden Cleveland Browns 13.4 10.2 -3.2
Devin McCourty New England Patriots 13.2 -0.8 -14
Patrick Robinson New Orleans Saints 0.9 8 +7.1

Pro Football Focus

Anyone who spent serious time scouting guys like Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne or Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson knows their rookie seasons were, overall, disappointments compared to their potential. 

Fans hate to hear stuff like that because it goes against the grain of optimism usually surrounding new players. They'll cite interception numbers or pass deflections—ignoring all the times the young cornerback was beaten like a rented mule. Or, they'll cite Peterson's Pro Bowl nod, ignoring the fact that it was as a return specialist. 

Try to tell St. Louis Rams fans that Janoris Jenkins wasn't very good last season—heck, even attempt to do that with half the guys in media and you'll get complete disagreement with that assessment. Yes, Jenkins returned three interceptions and a fumble recovery for touchdowns last season, but he played 978 other snaps too—many of which were full of rookie mistakes and errors. 

The bright side, of course, is that Peterson took a huge leap forward in his second season, as did guys like San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, New Orleans Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson and New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara. One can reasonably expect similar leaps in production from Claiborne, Jenkins and Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore as well. 

The phenomenon of rookie cornerbacks who struggle to adjust in the NFL is not new. A few years ago, former Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Gene Smith explained that the increased importance of the nickelback position was forcing teams to start more young players on the outside, per CBS Sports' Pete Prisco:

It is easier to play as an outside corner as a rookie than it is to play the nickel position. The nickel position is more mentally and physically challenging, as you must be able to process things with a very decisive mind. The nickel must deal with more route combinations and the ball is on you quicker. 

After which, Prisco concluded:

So the rookies usually line up outside. That means when mistakes are made, and they will be, they won't be hidden. It's learning on the run, with their mistakes magnified more than any other position in the game.

We talk glowingly about "Revis Island" in reference to now-Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis. But, for a young cornerback, being out "on an island" can be both lonely and embarrassing. Much like the hot sun beats upon a tropical island with no shade, the spotlight of one-on-one coverage in the NFL can burn a rookie cornerback just as quickly as a speedy receiver.

Since he was just mentioned, it's worth noting that Revis had one of the better rookie seasons (2007) of any recent cornerback. Inserted directly into the starting lineup, he made some mistakes, but quickly gained the respect of wide receivers across from him and helped contribute to a New York Jets defense ranked No. 9 against the pass that season. 

What is it about the transition from college to the pros that makes things difficult for most corners? First and foremost, it's because the game is different at the pro-level. Offenses are more complex, and route combinations are more diverse. Former NFL cornerback and head coach and ESPN Insider Herm Edwards explains (subscription required):

As a rookie cornerback, you're going to get beat. There is a learning curve. The question is how you respond. Just look at Patrick Peterson last year. A supremely athletic corner, he was getting beat early and often, but he started to figure it out the second half of the year. As a rookie, you need confidence and have to play on instincts because it's very difficult to learn all of the coverages—especially if they are complex.

Edwards goes on to explain how he had to be a student of the game to succeed early on in his career, and how the increased use of the spread offense puts younger cornerbacks on the field (and on that aforementioned island) before they are ready.

 

This isn't the Pac-12, Mr. Trufant

So, rookie cornerback, you were the big man on campus, no? Well, this isn't your alma mater, and we don't have "Directional State University" coming up first on the schedule. This is the NFL, and every opponent is going to come with far more talent than the average college team of which many "went pro in something other than sports.

Take a look at the first six games of Trufant's last season with the Washington Huskies—which included three non-conference tune-up games and three divisional games. He went up against San Diego State, LSU, Portland State, Stanford, Oregon and USC. 

That's actually quite the murderers' row for a college schedule. Some of the receivers he went against were impressive as well—Brice Butler is now with the Oakland Raiders; Robert Woods is with the Buffalo Bills, Odell Beckham (LSU) and Marqise Lee (USC) are both promising draft prospects in 2014. 

Compare it, however, to the first six games on Atlanta's schedule in 2013: New Orleans, St. Louis, Miami, New England, New York Jets and Tampa Bay. In NFL terms, that's not the world's hardest schedule by any means. However, there's no Portland State on the docket either. 

More importantly, every matchup is going to bring multiple receivers to town who excelled both physically and mentally far above the majority of their collegiate peers. These receivers are bigger, faster and stronger than just about anybody Trufant faced in 2012—outside maybe USC. 

In Week 1 of the preseason, Trufant was "welcomed to the NFL" by Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham. This was the response on Twitter:

Before the draft, I repeatedly noted that Trufant needed to be more physical both tackling and in coverage, but he'd never gotten trucked quite like that.  

The quarterbacks picking on the cornerbacks, too, are far more talented.

Former USC quarterback Matt Barkley (now with the Philadelphia Eagles) was one of the more revered players in college football over the past few seasons. Now, he's fighting for the chance to just be second on the Eagles' depth chart. Every team on the Falcons' schedule (even the Jets) is going to have a quarterback who is better than Barkley. 

Now, consider Alford, who has a chance to beat out Trufant for a starting spot. He went to Southeastern Louisiana—a proud member of the Southland Conference of the NCAA's FCS division. Much of Alford's collegiate success stemmed from being bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than 99.9 percent of the players he lined up against. 

NFL wide receivers who line up against Alford are going to test him physically in ways he's never been tested before. They'll willingly body up to him, shed him like a winter coat and coast up the sideline like he wasn't even there.

Every time? No. A lot? Almost certainly.

 

What Does This Mean for the Atlanta Falcons?

Here's Asante Samuel getting beat in coverage and Desmond Trufant looking lost in support.

Do I expect the Falcons to have one of the worst defenses in football because they're relying on a couple of rookie cornerbacks? No, probably not. They ranked 24th in total defense last season and are likely going to be right around the same level of production in 2013. 

However, this will put pressure on the Falcons' pass rush to step up. The aforementioned addition of Umenyiora will help, but losing defensive end John Abraham to the Cardinals will not do them any favors. The Falcons will not be able to rely on "coverage sacks" or a lot of complex blitzing, and the line will need to hold its own. 

The linebacker unit will also need to play better in 2013. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent gave up a passer rating of 144, according to PFF (subscription required), to quarterbacks who attacked him in 2012. Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas isn't much better in coverage. Among the Falcons' starting linebackers, only Sean Weatherspoon can be considered a plus in this area. 

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The Falcons do have a great safety duo with Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. However, the pressure will be on them to play near-perfect football.

Remember, cornerback Asante Samuel is a gambling ball hawk, but makes a lot of mistakes and has lost a step since his 30th birthday. He's also an unwilling tackler and has lots of tape over the course his career of either getting blown up or blown by opposing ball-carriers.

Those safeties will need to cover up any mistakes, miscommunications or rookie hiccups along the way. 

Most of all, though, the Falcons will need to rely on their great offense.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is one of the best in the game, and he's got a great group of weapons around him. A defense is allowed to make a few mistakes if the offense can go back out and return the favor against the opponent's defense. Even if the worst-case scenario happens, and the Falcons are giving up 30 points a game, is anyone going to doubt that the Falcons offense can put up 33?

There's no doubt in my mind that the Falcons are the best team on paper heading into the 2013 NFL season. When I think about how their games will unfold, however, the tandem of rookie cornerbacks that is about to play a big role for the Falcons is worrisome.

For the Falcons to make a deep run, they'll need everyone to step up in support of the cornerback position and for both Trufant and Alford to make a quicker-than-average transition to the NFL game. If those two things don't happen, the season could get awfully ugly, awfully quickly, for a team that otherwise looks ready for a Super Bowl run. 

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.

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