The Falcons have so many holes on the roster that the cornerback position can sometimes get lost in the shuffle, but don’t kid yourself, it is a pressing need that will need addressing this offseason.
AJ Terrell can be penciled in for the next decade, and Atlanta returns Casey Hayward, who missed a majority of the 2022 campaign with a shoulder injury. Darren Hall played admirably when thrust into a prominent role, but it would be a shame if the Falcons went into the 2023 season with him as a third corner.
Hayward is aging; Hall hasn’t developed at a rate that projects starting capability. In today’s NFL, teams need three starters and at least one reliable reserve player. Hall projects to be that backup, so the starting nickel role is vacant with Isaiah Oliver hitting free agency. Terry Fontenot even stated at the NFL Combine how important of a position the nickel has become.
Notes from Falcons GM Terry Fontenot. Emphasized nickel CB calling it “a critical position”
Also said they put a little peach on their draft board next to names of players from the state of Georgia
Alabama’s Brian Branch plays the slot better than anyone, and is from Georgia pic.twitter.com/AicXxhNuwJ
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) February 28, 2023
It’s true. Positionless football is taking over. Hybrid defenders that are used in the correct systems have become the most valuable players. The nickel position requires a certain amount of versatility, depending on the system. Generally, they’re tasked with more coverage than linebackers and more run defense than boundary corners. Safeties and corners can man the slot, and the Falcons have plenty of options.
The team can re-sign Isaiah Oliver. After spending part of the year recovering from an ACL injury, he rounded into form toward the end of the season. He logged one sack, one interception, seven passes defended, 36 tackles, three of those for loss. His best performance came in a Week 17 victory over the Cardinals in which he posted nine tackles, two passes defended, and a sack. Given his health and a full offseason of preparation, I’d be all for bringing him back, considering how affordable he was last year.
The only thing standing in that path is new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. Dean Pees would’ve advocated for Oliver returning, but the new staff might not be so inclined. There are potential free agent options like Chauncy Gardner-Johnson, who is an elite player and has familiarity with Terry Fontenot and Atlanta’s coordinator.
There is also the possibility the Falcons fill the void before free agency. Brian Branch is an enticing prospect and would slot in perfectly. On a defense with Will Anderson, Branch was the payer I noticed most on the Crimson Tide defense. He’s incredibly versatile and plays with a mean streak, though some might argue that #8 would be a bit overzealous.
Regardless, the Falcons will have to address the nickel position.