It's probably a good thing that fans didn't immediately recognize all of Atlanta's draft picks this year.
As fellow writer Alex Welch so perceptively points out, fans hate the unfamiliar, but they also tend to overlook small school players (so do NFL teams, occasionally).
Having played at the FCS level throughout his collegiate career, we don't necessarily know what we will immediately get with Robert Alford, second-round pick of the Falcons in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Admittedly, Alford was a name I had heard sparingly before the draft, but he was considered a big riser following an impressive Senior Bowl performance and some striking personal workouts:
Hearing ton of buzz about a player I'd slept on before today: CB Robert Alford of SE Louisiana. Raw, sick athlete. 8-10 visits. 1-2 rounder?— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 1, 2013
In fact, many had speculated that Alford would be a top-42 selection. Landing him at No. 60, an obvious example of the "best player available" mentality after taking another corner in the first, comes across as a steal on paper. And remembering that the Falcons may have even considered taking Malliciah Goodman in the second round before landing him two full rounds later makes this pick seem superior to the alternative.
There's no knowing just how Alford will turn out with the Falcons just yet. But as we delve into his past, perhaps we can catch glimpses of his future as a pro.
School: Southeastern Louisiana
Combine Measurments: 5'10, 188 lbs, 32'' arms
40 Time: 4.39 sec
Bench Press: 17 reps
Vertical: 40.0 inch
NFL Comparison: Corey Graham
Stats (senior): 39 tackles (35 solo), 5.0 TFL, 4 INT, 8 pass break-ups
What sets him apart:
The most impressive skill I see out of Alford is his physicality - he will get off his blocks and get in the ballcarrier's grill, so to speak. Great hand usage, and he's always looking for the ball. Great in bump-and-run coverage.
Alford's athleticism allows him to excel in man coverage as well, an asset that should translate rather quickly to the NFL level. Can be a real ball hawk when he wants to, and his fantastic ups (40-inch vertical) remind me of Brent Grimes, in a way. Really, just watch the first play of this highlight reel and tell me that doesn't look like a Grimes play.
More important than the great 40 time is that Alford has killer playing speed: he nearly returned the opening kickoff of the Senior Bowl to the house (the one man he couldn't beat on that play was new teammate Desmond Trufant). He really just flies all over the field, with the quickness you want and great change of direction. reminiscent of my favorite safety in this year's class Matt Elam.
And that's another thing: Alford has serious potential as a return man in the pros. I would be shocked to see him start at corner right away, but I can almost guarantee we'll see this guy making plays on special teams as a rookie.
As I said, don't expect to see Alford start immediately, mostly because (duh) Desmond Trufant rightfully has the inside track.
The other reason involves the type of player the Falcons get in Alford. He's an athletic specimen, but he's raw and it should take some time for him to adjust to the complexity of the NFL game.
Pete Golding, Alford's most recent defensive coordinator at SE Louisiana, specifically pointed out the perceived mental deficiencies in his star cornerback's game:
"Rob has always been more athletic than everybody, so he could just go on the field, compete and let his raw ability take over," Golding said. "But he didn’t understand formations, split receivers and the routes that come off of them, coverages, he was like a freshman in that aspect of it. But he realized ‘this is the last shot I got.’ And on his days off, he’d come in here and we’d watch film together. He became a student of the game, which helped him tremendously. He still has a lot of work to do, but I think he realizes it now."
So no, there's no baptism by fire awaiting Alford as a rookie barring some tremendous improvements throughout his first professional training camp.
His technique needs some improvement too, specifically when tackling. He's more than willing to come up and hit receivers or backs, but he'll occasionally take bad angles or display improper form. This can be corrected with good coaching.
Alford also has a couple of injuries to his name, one of which (shoulder) caused him to miss the entirety of the 2010 season. Given Atlanta's recent misfortunes with rookies and injuries, I'd expect the trainers and staff to be cautious with Alford.
Other writers have cited concerns such as his Crohn's disease, age (25 years old) and the level of play he faced in the FCS, but I honestly don't believe any of those are valid. Plenty of fantastic players, Hall of Fame players, have emerged from smaller schools. Crohn's disease should not be an issue with proper nutrition (David Garrard has played through it). And age, well, that's just a number as my mother would say.
Alford was the riskier of Atlanta's first two draft selections, but it's also possible that his ceiling is higher than Trufant's. There will be growing pains and questions of his immediate returns as a second-round selection, but Thomas Dimitroff very well could have discovered a diamond in the FCS rough in Alford.
Also, #TeamAlford because what Falcons player would you be if you didn't hashtag every tweet with #TeamAlford.
Highlights: The Senior Bowl performance that essentially won the Falcons over
Robert Alford (CB Southeastern Louisiana) Senior Bowl (via Justis Mosqueda)