Robert Alford is a gifted young cornerback, one who is capable of matching receivers step-for-step and authoring some big plays along the way. Alford is also a gambling man, someone who isn't always in the right position when the ball is in the air, and who occasionally pays for that.
Alford received a justified reputation for physicality in his rookie season, but that physicality came with more than a couple of egregious penalties. The widespread expectation was that Alford, a smart corner with all the necessary physical tools to be great, would clean up those penalties and emerge in his second season. While I think Alford's early season woes were overblown and he's had some terrific flashes this year, that's not exactly what has happened.
Alford has had some rough outings, including against Tampa Bay just last week. He's been on the hook for four defensive pass interference penalties, three defensive holding penalties and an illegal block above the waist and illegal contact penalty, which all ads up to 100 yards worth of penalties. His coverage grade is the second-worst on the team, if you're inclined to buy Pro Football Focus's coverage ratings, and that takes some of the shine off of his team-leading three interceptions. Taken together, all of this suggests a corner who is scuffling a bit between tough matchups and a few self-inflicted wounds.
That's led to a few questions from fans about whether the team would consider rolling with Josh Wilson opposite Desmond Trufant, reducing Alford's snap count a bit and taking a little pressure off him by not asking him to line up against a team's #1 or #2 receiver. It's something I could see the team exploring, but I'd view it as unlikely in light of Alford's promise and the major role he should play in the secondary for years to come. Regardless of who is coaching the team next year, 26-year-old cornerbacks with stellar tools aren't usually discarded.
Even if the Falcons do elect to make a move—and I can only see it happening if the team is very much in the playoff hunt and Alford is viewed as an active liability—we're talking about something that would likely represent a temporary demotion, at worst. Wilson's on a one year deal and has been solid, not great, and Alford's a reasonably-priced young corner with loads of upside.
I personally believe Alford should continue to start and that he'll only improve over time, but I do think Mike Nolan should consider having Desmond Trufant shadow teams' top receivers with greater frequency to lighten the load on Alford a little bit and allow him to freelance a bit more, since that's what he does particularly well. All the team and Alford can do on the penalty front is continue to work on discipline and knowing what's going to be called, and when. Mike Smith has alluded to the importance of this in recent weeks.
Alford will be worth watching this Sunday, particularly if he's matched up against promising rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Again, I do think Alford's going to be very good sooner rather than later, but if the Falcons pull off a win and he scuffles again, don't be stunned if the team gives Wilson a shot outside on at least a limited basis.
Your thoughts on Alford's year?