FLOWERY BRANCH -- In the past five to seven years, the NFL has transitioned into a pass-happy league. To adjust, the Atlanta Falcons spent considerable resources during the 2013 draft to combat the trend of airing out the football to win games.
When the Falcons picked cornerback Desmond Trufant in the first round (22nd overall) in 2013 and followed that pick with another corner Robert Alford (60th overall) in the second round, Atlanta made a bold statement. With those picks, the team was set on stopping opposing passers from bombarding the Falcons with deep pass after deep pass. Because quarterbacks Drew Brees and Cam Newton were in the NFC South with Atlanta, the move to bolster its secondary was even more paramount.
The two years and a smidge later, the cornerback duo with the Falcons has been a mixed bag.
Trufant was with the first team from Day 1, and hasn’t missed a start in his pro career. He has gotten better with each season, and defensive coordinator Richard Smith said Wednesday the coaching staff calls Trufant “Sticky Man” because of his cover skills.
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Alford has been more of a work in progress.
He only made four starts during his rookie season, and just 10 in 2014. Through the first two games of the 2015 campaign, Alford still had growing pains. Opposing quarterbacks looking to avoid Trufant, who now gets mentioned among top 10 corners in the NFL, tested Alford repeatedly.
Philadelphia and the New York Giants combined to target Alford 15 times in the first two games of the season. Alford allowed nine receptions for 159 yards and two touchdowns. In the two games since, however, he’s only been targeted six times and given up just two catches for 21 yards.
His Week 4 game against Houston was a coming-out party of sorts. Alford was actually targeted fewer times that Trufant, and gave up fewer receptions and yards. It was probably Alford’s best professional showing since entering the league.
“If you look at last week, I think he had three pass breakups, (and was) really effective,” said Smith. “Before last week, a lot of balls were going his way downtown. He did a nice job of challenging those throws (against the Texans).
“Overall, his progress has been very (good). A year ago, he had several penalties in the pass-coverage aspect. He hasn’t had that. We’ve been really pleased with him.”
As Alford has improved this season, he’s climbed the rankings of NFL corners. According to Pro Football Focus, Alford appeared on the top 10 cornerbacks list after breaking up three passes and holding Texans passers Bryan Hoyer and Ryan Mallett to a 44.4 passer rating on balls thrown toward him. Alford is ranked ninth on that list (13.5 cover snaps per reception) according to receptions he’s allowed while the primary man in coverage. Trufant is ranked second in the league at 25 cover snaps per reception.
At the end of the day, Alford has made just 18 starts in his career with the Falcons, compared to 36 by Trufant. If Alford enjoys the same growth curve as the man picked just 38 spots ahead of him in the 2013 draft, the Falcons just might find they’ve developed two shutdown corners.