Free Agent Duel: Grimes or Moore?
Despite being dismissed by most experts in August, the Atlanta Falcons took a clear step forward this season with their first playoff win under coach Mike Smith. Yet, although quarterback Matt Ryan finally threw the monkey off his back, questions remain about a defense that surrendered 864 yards and two huge leads in the playoffs. With two key defensive backs scheduled to become free agents, general manager Thomas Dimitroff may have to decide between keeping cornerback Brent Grimes or strong safety William Moore. PFF Analysts Pete Damilatis and Gordon McGuinness debate which secondary member should be Atlanta’s primary concern come March.
Why it has to be Grimes
By Pete Damilatis
The Falcons’ surprise march to the No. 1 seed this season appears even more impressive when you realize they did it without their best defensive back. Grimes’ +17.2 grade in 2011 was second only to the great Darrelle Revis, and Atlanta used the franchise tag to ensure they’d keep the 29-year-old cornerback around for at least another year. When Grimes unfortunately tore his Achilles in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season, many assumed that his days as a Dirty Bird were done. But Atlanta should not let him walk away that easily.
Cornerbacks are still too often judged by their interception count, and Grimes’ one pick in 2011 didn’t put him on anyone’s radar. However, after dissecting the film, we saw one of the best cover corners in the NFL. Grimes’ average allowance of 0.58 Yards Per Cover Snap was the lowest for any cornerback with over 200 coverage snaps. On the season, he surrendered just 258 yards, allowing just 10.3 yards per reception and a 62.9 passer rating. His 12 passes defensed tied him for seventh-most at his position, as he knocked away 21.4% of the throws when he was targeted. And he was the model of consistency, only twice earning a negative PFF grade in a game.
That season wasn’t an outlier for Grimes either, as he received a Top-10 cornerback grade in 2010 and allowed just a 61.3 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks, earning the first of two straight PFF Pro Bowl selections. But regardless of his past production, should the Falcons really invest in a 30-year-old cornerback coming off an injury, especially when they already have Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson under contract? That depends upon your opinion of Robinson, which at this point shouldn’t be very high.
Robinson is a solid run defender, but the aggressiveness that helps him near the line of scrimmage too often burns him in the secondary. He earned a -7.0 coverage grade this season after a -10.4 in 2011, ranking him near the bottom of his position. Too often looking for the big hit instead of the safe tackle, Robinson allowed 835 yards in coverage and 300 yards after the catch, both numbers being among the 10 highest surrendered by a cornerback this season. He’s also inconsistent, earning higher than a +1.0 grade in seven games, but lower than a -1.0 in five others.
By drafting Julio Jones, trading for Samuel, and inevitably moving on from Michael Turner, the Falcons organization clearly sees the passing game as their future on both sides of the ball. Losing Grimes would only set them back in their development. Come March, it should be Robinson who hits the free agent market.
Why it shouldn’t be Grimes
By Gordon McGuinness
While he was one of the top corners in the league in 2010 and 2011, I’m still not sold on Atlanta committing to either a long-term contract or an expensive one-year franchise tag on Grimes. His performance in 2012, where he finished with a grade of -1.3 isn’t really relevant and I’m not going to try to use that to justify why he shouldn’t be kept around — the sample size of 52 snaps before his season-ending injury is just too small. The fact that he’s 30 and coming off an Achilles injury, however, is exactly why I think it’s time for the Falcons to say goodbye to Grimes.
The phenomenal performance of Adrian Peterson this past season after his own terrible injury seems to have everyone assuming that it’s now relatively easy to make a comeback off a serious lower leg injury whether its a torn ACL or Achilles. As we all know that’s something that’s simply not true. Take a look at Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, who has been up there with Grimes in the past couple of seasons among the best cornerbacks in the league. Webb suffered a knee injury late in his rookie season in 2009 and it took him well into 2010 before we saw him back to the form that he had shown before the injury and, unlike Grimes, Webb had youth on his side. At the age of 30, is Grimes ever going to get back to the level that his contract may warrant?
I’ll confess to being a bit of a cornerback snob in that I like a top cornerback to have shown that he can track receivers all across the field and play well in the slot. Maybe Grimes can do that, but in his time in Atlanta he has played almost exclusively on the outside, with just 12 snaps from the slot since 2009. Ultimately, in a free agent market where there are plenty of solid corners, I just think Atlanta would be better served spending money elsewhere than committing too much to a player with a huge question mark over his heath heading into 2013.
Why it has to be Moore
By Gordon McGuinness
He might not always be the most consistent performer, but safety William Moore gave Atlanta plenty of reasons to want to keep him around next season and beyond in 2012. Our 18th-highest-graded safety this past year, Moore has been entrenched as a starter in the Falcons’ secondary since Week 2 of the 2010 season. Drafted out of Missouri in the second round, he has certainly had his ups and downs throughout his career.
Allowing receptions on 62.8% of the passes thrown into his coverage in the regular season and two playoff games, he gave up three touchdowns while picking off four passes and breaking up seven more. Highlighting the up-and-down nature of his season, he allowed 19 of the 27 receptions, and 407 of the 501 yards, he surrendered on the year in just six games.
Moore isn’t without his faults, and his inconsistency would make me more nervous about handing him a big contract, however, he showed enough progression this season for me to believe he is going to continue to get better. Look back to the games against the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, and more importantly Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, and you’ll see that he can get the better of even the best quarterbacks in the league on his day.
Most importantly, when you look at the free agent market at the position, I’m not sure that Atlanta can do much better than Moore. Buffalo’s Jarius Byrd is the top free safety heading into free agency, but the recent cuts by the Bills appear to be clearing space to ensure that Byrd doesn’t leave town, while players like Ed Reed aren’t any better than Moore at this stage in their career. Obviously Atlanta has a difficult decision to make in their secondary this offseason, but looking toward 2013 and beyond, keeping Moore over Grimes is the right choice.
Why it Shouldn’t be Moore
By Pete Damilatis
Gordon is right to identify Moore as a young player the Falcons should try to keep, but he’s not the special talent worthy of a franchise tag or long-term contract. Though his 7.1 Run Stop Percentage is solid, the 1.09 Yards Per Cover Snap he allowed was one of the worst marks at his position. Despite playing only 12 games, the 446 yards Moore surrendered in the regular season was the ninth-highest total of any safety. And looking at his individual performances, you have to worry about Moore’s ability to defend against mobile quarterbacks. Two of his worst coverage grades this season came against Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. Then in the playoffs, he earned a -2.9 coverage grade and allowed a combined 152.9 passer rating to Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. Atlanta can’t afford such performances if it ultimately wants to conquer a conference stacked with running quarterbacks.
Although his inconsistency is enough concern to me, Moore also has a history of injuries that cost him four games in both 2011 and 2012. Don’t get me wrong, Grimes has been far from healthy in his career. However, I look at the free agent market and see other thumping strong safeties like George Wilson who can be had for a relatively decent price. I also see talented but inconsistent cornerbacks like Aqib Talib and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who someone will pay a top-dollar deal for, in the hopes that they can become the type of shutdown corner that Grimes has already been. Grimes isn’t young and he won’t come cheap, but for a contender like the Falcons, he’s the type of elite player that can put them over the top.