Editor’s note: This is the third of a 10-part position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons’ roster heading into training camp.
After finishing near the bottom of the NFL in key defensive passing statistics, the Falcons elected to revamp the cornerback position for 2019.
The Falcons were 27th of 32 teams in passing yards allowed per game (259.6 yards), 29th in passing touchdowns allowed (33) and 30th in completion percentage (68%). The porous stats led to the release of two of their top three cornerbacks.
Right cornerback Robert Alford (957 defensive snaps) and nickel back Brian Poole (831 defensive snaps) were not re-signed.
The Falcons are counting on right corner Isaiah Oliver and nickel back Damontae Kazee to improve their overall coverage when training camp starts.
Veterans are scheduled to report July 21, one day before the first practice July 22. Rookies are scheduled to report July 18.
The Falcons will have eight practices open to the public, including one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and will play the Broncos in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 1 in Canton, Ohio.
“Oliver is ready to take the next jump,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Position change for Kazee.”
The Falcons re-signed veteran Blidi Wreh-Wilson and drafted the speedy Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller to provide depth at cornerback.
Oliver played 240 defensive snaps last season as a rookie. He showed some promise while receiving some on-the-job-training.
“You see his athleticism,” said Jerome Henderson, the defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach. “His size. His poise. His intelligence. His work ethic. When you put all of those things together, you just know that this kid is going to figure it out. He’s going to be a good player in this league. He’s going to be a solid pro. The sky is the limit, how high he can go?”
Oliver, who was taken in the second round (58th overall) of the 2018 draft out of Colorado, made two starts and played in 14 games last season. He finished with 23 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception.
“The thing we like, his character and he has a great attitude,” defensive back coach Doug Mallory said. “He showed well on tape with the limited reps he had last year. He’s got very good ball skills. He’s an effective tackler. He only missed one tackle all of last year.”
Oliver is confident that he’s ready to start.
“It really just comes down to confidence,” Oliver said. “That’s something where I have a lot more confidence this year than I did last year. It’s probably going to be like that throughout my career from year to year. But yeah, that’s the biggest jump that I made. Becoming more confident in the scheme of things.”
Kazee played 990 defensive snaps after taking over at free safety for Ricardo Allen last season. He showed his ball-hawking skills with seven interceptions, which tied for the league led with Chicago’s Kyle Fuller and Miami’s Xavien Howard.
The Falcons like Kazee’s coverage range.
“Now, we are trying to take that and move him closer to the ball,” Mallory said. “One of the areas that we ask the nickel to play, one of the qualities that he has to have, is to be able to play man coverage. That was one of the big things.”
Kazee, who played cornerback in college at San Diego State, also will be asked to blitz some from the slot.
“I just moved with the best receiver (in college),” Kazee said. “Last year in the (exhibition) season, I played free safety and nickel. One half I’d go to nickel and one half I’d go to free safety. I already have the feel of it and everything. It’s not very new to me this year, so I can play it.”
Kazee said he’ll be fine with the man coverage responsibilities.
“It’s just working techniques and learning the new techniques how the (slot) receiver works on the line because they are three yards off the line of scrimmage,” Kazee said. “I have to learn what techniques and leverages work.”
Kazee said knowing where he has help and when he doesn’t have help will be key.
“I have to learn my brother’s job,” Kazee said. “So if I know my brother’s job where he has got the inside, I know where I can line up at. If I know my brother doesn’t have inside and I know he’s sitting there, I can just line up outside.”
The Falcons also hope that Desmond Trufant can return to his 2015 Pro Bowl form.
“He’s in a great place, physically and mentally,” Henderson said. “He’s been locked in. He’s competed hard. I expect him to have a really good season. I expect him to be the player we all know that he is.”
Cornerbacks: Right — 26 Isaiah Oliver, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 23 Jayson Stanley. Nickel — 27 Damontae Kazee, 28 Jordan Miller. Left — 21 Desmond Trufant, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 39 Taveze Calhoun, 32 Rashard Causey.
Who’s returning: Trufant, Oliver, Kazee and Wreh-Wilson. Wreh-Wilson, a dependable reserve, signed a one-year, $895,000 deal with a $90,000 signing bonus Feb. 25.
Who’s gone: Alford signed a three-year, $22.5 million Feb. 8 with the Cardinals. Poole signed a one-year $3.5 million deal with the Jets. Deante Burton, who played five defensive snaps last season, is with the Texans.
Roster competitions: The top three positions are set with Wreh-Wilson sitting in the sixth position as a key reserve. The Falcons are excited about the two rookies they drafted. “Sheffield and Miller (are the) ones that we are developing fast from the draft,” Quinn said. “Outside and inside. It’s fun to get the group going.” Also, the Falcons are converting former Georgia wide receiver Jayson Stanley to cornerback. He’ll have a shot to make the team as a special teams player.
Position-by-position series: July 8: Special teams | July 9: Safeties | July 10: Cornerbacks | July 11: Linebackers | July 12: Defensive line | July 13: Quarterbacks |July 14: Offensive line | July 15: Wide receivers | July 16: Tight ends | July 17: Running backs
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