The Falcons made their first notable move of the offseason by moving on from Robert Alford, saving $7.9 million of their 2019 cap space. The news was far from surprising, although, restructuring Alford’s contract still appeared to be in the cards heading into the offseason.
Now that we know that will not be happening, the organization can focus their full attention on fine-tuning the remainder of Atlanta’s secondary. The Falcons will get a giant boost from the returns of both their starting safeties, but there is some work to do at the cornerback position before the beginning of the 2019 season.
Alford’s vacancy opens up a starting role for Isaiah Oliver, the Falcons second-round pick in 2018. Oliver played sparingly in his rookie season, appearing in fourteen games and starting in two of them because of injuries in the secondary. For the most part, he was an afterthought, which is surprising because of how porous the back-end of Atlanta’s defense was. But in the limited playing time he had, he received mixed reviews.
Oliver made some plays, recording his first career interception and had seven passes defended, but also had several rookie moments where he was caught out of position. Most specifically, in week four against the Bengals, when he allowed the game-winning touchdown on a pass to A.J. Green in the corner of the end zone. It was merely a case where Oliver was playing too shallow in zone coverage in a situation where Cincinnati needed a touchdown to win the game, but it’s one of the reasons why Oliver saw more time on the sideline than he did on the field.
However, his lack of playing time also had a lot to do with Alford’s seniority on the team and the more lucrative deal he was on. After such a marvelous 2017, the Falcons had to figure out whether Alford was worth keeping around for the remainder of his contract, so its understandable as to why he continued as the starter despite his struggles.
In 2019, we will find out if Oliver was indeed worth that second-round pick that could have been used on several other more pertinent needs – cough, cough – the defensive line.
Desmond Trufant will remain the starter across from him. Regardless of all the backlash both Trufant and Alford received, Trufant bounced back big-time in the second half of the season.
Beyond that, the Falcons will have to figure out who will be their starting nickel corner. Brian Poole occupied the position last year but was far from stellar. Meanwhile, Damontae Kazee filled in as a starting safety the entire season and excelled. With both Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen set to return as starters in 2019, Kazee appears to be in a battle with Poole for that nickel position.
In college, Kazee was a ball-hawking cornerback for the San Diego State Aztecs, recording 15 interceptions in his final 28 games. He seamlessly made the transition to safety in the NFL but has reiterated that he would like to play corner again at this level. Kazee even went as far as to say safety is ‘boring’. After the year he had, Dan Quinn will be searching for ways to put him on the field, making a battle between Kazee and Poole one to watch out for when training camp begins, assuming the Falcons hold onto Poole through restricted free agency.
That gives Atlanta four options at the cornerback, but they don’t have very much to offer past that. Considering we have not seen much of Oliver, and have not seen Kazee play corner at all, there’s no telling what to expect from them, meaning the Falcons have to be in the market for a cornerback. They will be evaluating all their options in the draft and free agency. I do not expect them to spend a high pick or a lot of money, but an addition for depth purposes is an absolute must. My prediction is they target one in the middle to late rounds of the draft.
Without Robert Alford, the Falcons cornerback situation does not change too much. Isaiah Oliver should be able to step in and play at a level that is at least equal to that of Alford in 2018. Brian Poole and Damontae Kazee will battle it out for the starting nickel spot, and a focus will still be placed on improving the position this offseason. It may not be the Falcons top priority, but behind the offensive and defensive line, there are not many more glaring needs.