Cornerback is a position group that terrifies me as it could become extremely vulnerable with an injury or two at the top of the depth chart. The optimism AJ Terrell sparks is great, but the rest of the group leaves something to be desired. Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees is multiple on defense, which means he’ll adjust the scheme to his players and what the opponent dictates. He’ll run many different coverages in many personnel groupings, but he uses his boundary and slot corners very differently. Slot or nickel backs are closer in proximity to the ball on most plays, which inherently makes them more effective supporting the run and blitzing more.
The nickel corner and the boundary corner opposite Terrell need starters, though I have feelings about who I think will occupy those positions. Isaiah Oliver and Darren Hall will likely compete for the starting nickel role — this is, of course, accounting for Richie Grant starting as the big nickel, different from regular nickel that uses smaller-bodied corners. Oliver is one of my breakout candidates because I believe he’s found his niche in the slot.
Dean Pees reiterated in a press conference that the Falcons would blitz anyone from anywhere, which bodes well for Oliver. Slot or nickel backs are usually tasked with supporting the run more and blitzing more than boundary corners due to their proximity to the ball, which is exactly where Oliver showed life in the latter half of 2020. Versatility is key at every level of a Dean Pees defense… and defensive backs need to support the run and blitz among normal responsibilities — exactly how Ulbrich described him, a Swiss Army Knife.
In 16 games last year, Oliver recorded 70 tackles, four tackles for loss, six passes defended, one sack, and one forced fumble. The new staff has noticed the improved play as well. Jon Hoke, Falcons’ secondary coach, said he was impressed with Oliver’s production once he made the position switch — speaking on the kind of player he could be.
I truly believe Oliver will have a great year in this new system where his skill set can be maximized in a nickel-back role. He’ll have competition, though, from rookie fourth-round pick Darren Hall, who I believe could eventually play two positions in this league — safety and cornerback. As a freshman at San Diego State, he saw time at safety but transitioned to cornerback in 2018. His excellent instincts, anticipation, ball skills, and quick feet give him a chance to play in the slot, on the boundary, or as a safety.
At first, I believe he’ll compete for the nickel role with Oliver. His spatial awareness, rapid diagnostic skills, lightning burst, and quick-footed backpedal make him an ideal slot corner. He fights receivers throughout the route and normally does a good job positioning himself to make a play, but his aggressiveness in the run game — showing the ability and willingness to attack bigger running backs without fear — is just another reason to get him on the field as soon as possible, wherever he fits. His best work came in zone coverage, which is why I believe he’s better suited at this point in his career to patrol the slot instead of the boundary.
This isn’t even mentioning the open boundary spot opposite Terrell, where I believe Fabian Moreau, Kendall Sheffield, and Hall will compete. Moreau signed a one-year, $1.127 million deal this offseason, and he’s a physical cornerback who was graded by PFF above-average in both coverage and run support. Over 18 career starts, the 26-year-old has six career interceptions to go along with three forced fumbles and 14 passes defended.
Moreau played 72 snaps in the first two games a year ago, and he maximized those reps, intercepting Carson Wentz in Week 1. However, as Kyle Fuller got healthy combined with the solid play of Ronald Darby and Jimmy Moreland, Moreau slid down the depth chart — his snap count never came near his 46% and 53% marks in the first two weeks. Moreau was buried on the depth chart as Ron Rivera eluded to, “Fabian has the misfortune of having good guys around him as well.”
In limited snaps the past few years, Moreau has proven to be much more effective on the boundary compared to the slot, which makes him my shoo-in for the starter opposite Terrell. Kendall Sheffield is his only competition, as I see it, who has yet to put it all together, including a disappointing 2020. I’m optimistic about the former fourth-round pick because he has all the tools to succeed in this new-look defense. Playing mostly on the boundary last year; that’s where I see him competing again in 2021.
I expect the starters to be Moreau-Oliver/Hall-Terrell, but the competition is present, which is all one could ask for, though I wouldn’t hate bringing in someone like Dre Kirkpatrick, who can provide solid boundary depth.