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Atlanta's savior in the secondary

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Dan Parr

dparr@pfwmedia.com
Associate editor

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Posted June 02, 2010 @ 10:12 a.m. ET
By Dan Parr

In a league where "shutdown" cornerbacks are extinct in all but a few cities, there are not many corners who join a new team and are immediately expected to make the coverage tighter, the pass rush more effective and fellow corners better.

It's even more rare for that corner to be greeted with such fanfare following a season in which he didn't make a single interception.

Welcome to Duntapalooza in Atlanta, which began on the first weekend of free agency and has no official end date set.

Starved for help at the position after six different corners made at least two starts in '09, the Falcons, who ranked 28th vs. the pass last season, made signing Dunta Robinson their focus in free agency. Robinson, a Georgia native, did not visit any other teams after playing on a one-year franchise tag, which paid him $9.96 million, in his final season with the Texans, as the Falcons made the decision easy for him.

GM Thomas Dimitroff, who has said he's committed to building through the draft rather than chasing after high-priced free agents, and owner Arthur Blank made it clear they were willing to make an exception, as they did with RB Michael Turner in '08, and pay top dollar for Robinson's services. Blank sent his private jet to pick up Robinson, and the player signed a six-year, $57 million deal with $25.5 million guaranteed not long afterward.

It's only OTA season. Games that count are still three-plus months away. But the Falcons like what they see from their massive investment thus far.

"(Robinson is) very coachable," secondary coach Tim Lewis told PFW. "He's affable, amiable, but serious. Tough-minded. When it gets down to the football stuff, he's instinctive. He has unbelievably gifted feet and hips. His natural defensive back ability is fantastic. We're thrilled and fortunate to have him. The leadership that he brings is fantastic.

"I know it's a big answer, but he really hasn't done anything to make me think otherwise at this point. That's why we're happy about having him."

Robinson is expected to be the constant that the Falcons have lacked at corner since head coach Mike Smith and Dimitroff took over prior to the '08 season.

"The quarterbacks came up to us (corners), and the running backs, a lot of guys on offense have talked about just how much better the secondary is from a year ago, and that's what you want," Robinson told PFW in a phone interview at the end of an OTA session last week. "That in itself gives me, and us as a secondary, confidence."

While the Falcons are having trouble finding any flaws in Robinson, the 28-year-old's megadeal raised some eyebrows around the league. He tore his ACL and hamstring in '07, which required surgery, and some say he hasn't been quite the same on the field since.

Then there is the lack of interceptions in '09. He didn't make a single one for the first time in his career.

"There were a lot of reasons for that," Robinson said. "Not being thrown at that much was one of the reasons. You can work on that. You can learn routes and learn formations. That's one of the things you get when you play off (the line). You get to identify routes right away, which is something you can't do when your back is turned and you're running down the sideline with a receiver.

"It's definitely something that I'm working on, and I plan on having a lot of picks this year."

Just how many throws come to the left side of the field, where Robinson will be stationed, depends largely on whoever starts at right corner. The Falcons will hold a competition for the job in training camp. Brent Grimes — who started eight games and made six interceptions last season — Brian Williams, Chris Owens and Chevis Jackson are under consideration for the role.

If one of them doesn't step up and play well, Robinson's side of the field will likely be avoided by opposing quarterbacks once again.

Robinson singled out Grimes when asked about who has impressed him in drills thus far, and some consider Grimes the front-runner in the open competition. Lewis said he has seen Robinson make an impact on all of the team's corners in the short time he has spent with them.

"As the tide rises, the level of all boats rise," Lewis said. "I think that's exactly what he's done to this group. He's coming with wonderful accolades from media people. … Players respect good players. They know that he's a talented player. They've read the clippings. They've seen him play. The moment he stepped into the building, I think he raised the level of the other corners' game and the whole secondary's game, because they try to match him. They try to emulate what he does, and he practices at such a high tempo, takes diligent notes, listens and asks questions in meetings."

When Lewis, who is in his first season with the Falcons, was asked about which of the corners competing for the starting spot has caught his eye, he deflected the question.

"Now is not the time to get too jacked up or too low on a guy," he said.

Unless that guy is Dunta Robinson. Atlanta is pretty jacked up about him.

 

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