Robert Alford hasn't exactly been a fan favorite during his tenure with the Atlanta Falcons, but a lot of his criticism is undeserving and a bit harsh. His career started off rough in 2013, but he's improved his play every year to the point where he's a more than a competent starter. Through NFL1000's Week 12 rankings, Robert Alford has been the 28th ranked corner in the NFL, with similar scores to Kareem Jackson, Malcolm Butler, and Bradley Roby.
According to Football Outsider's cornerback success rates (held to 45% of yards on 1st down, 60% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd/4th down) Robert Alford was the second most "successful" cornerback on the Falcons behind Jalen Collins who has had a much smaller sample size. Obviously, Desmond Trufant is the Falcons' best corner, but Robert Alford is a stud in his own right.
Finding talented cornerbacks in the NFL can be difficult. With the vast majority of teams emphasizing the ability to throw the ball, it's difficult to let talented pass defenders walk out the door. Throughout the season Robert Alford has played well, despite an early barrage of penalties.
After being penalized 8 times in #Falcons first 6 games, Alford has been flagged just twice in the past 6— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) December 8, 2016
What's impressive about Alford's play this season is that he's been productive and effective with sporadic help from the defensive line. Vic Beasley has 10.5 sacks on the year, but as a whole the defensive line has been wildly inconsistent. Much like last season, Alford has bailed out an inconsistent pass rush time after time.
On this play the Falcons are playing man coverage across the board against the Cardinals. Jonathan Babineaux is able to get a little bit of pressure, but not enough to really affect Carson Palmer's throw. Alford is in man coverage against J.J. Nelson, one of the fastest receivers in the league, and he has no problem keeping stride with him. Once the ball arrives to the catch point, Alford makes a clean, perfectly timed break on the ball.
Again, the Falcons are playing man coverage against the Green Bay Packers. Alford is isolated against Jordy Nelson at the bottom of the screen. Nelson isn't as dynamic as he used to be, however he's still a dangerous receiver. Nelson does a good job with his initial vertical stem, getting Alford to flip his hips towards the sideline before breaking back towards the middle of the field.
Once Nelson makes his break on the "in" route, Aflord quickly flips his hips from the sideline and puts himself in position to trail Jordy Nelson until the ball is thrown. Once the ball is in the air Alford attacks the ball in a manner that gives him the opportunity to deflect it or tackle Nelson immediately once the ball is caught. He disrupted the catch point just enough to force an incomplete pass. Alford is a physical corner, which can be his downfall at times, but it helps him plays on the ball as well.
The Falcons are dropping eight into coverage with Courtney Upshaw coming off of the line of scrimmage, but they still have their normal 3 deep coverage over the top. Robert Alford is responsible for the deep third on the left side of the field. When Antonio Gates converts his vertical stem to a post route, Alford switches from zone to man because he has the protection of the weakside linebacker in case there was a wheel route.
Again, Alford breaks on the ball right as it reaches Antonio Gates hands for a touchdown saving pass deflection. Alford has really grown in his timing of the deflection over the years. He has rarely missed on those occasions this year.
His ability in coverage is the main reason why he got the extension, but this season he's done solid work as a tackler as well. Brian Poole is the best tackling cornerback on the team and Robert Alford isn't too far behind.
Melvin Gordon is listed at 6'1", 215 pounds. Robert Alford is listed at 5'10", 186 pounds. This is a great tackle in space on a bigger player to bring Gordon down for a short gain. There are plenty of cornerbacks that miss this tackle and allow the play to spring loose for a big gain.
What makes this play even more impressive is that he didn't get too deep in his Cover 3 drop because De'Vondre Campbell didn't take his proper drop to the flat. You can see Alford pointing Melvin Gordon out to Campbell before he clicks and closes on the ball. This is a great veteran play by Alford that saved what could've been a big gain.
Alford's physical play has gotten him into trouble this season, particularly in the early portion when he had a barrage of pass interference penalties.
Alford has improved at breaking on the ball as the season has progresses, but his timing was a mess at the start of the season. this is from the Week 4 game against the Carolina Panthers. In today's NFL the margin for error on pass interference penalties is extremely slim. Alford tries to jump the pass a split second before the ball arrives and becomes too physical with Devin Funchess at the catch point, drawing a flag.
Here's another example that shows the level of preciseness needed with flag-happy referees. This is great coverage up until the interception. He trails Michael Crabtree on his post pattern and explodes when the ball is in the air. Alford gives a slight nudge off of Crabtree's back to give him better leverage for the acrobatic catch. The nudge was enough to call defensive pass interference which put the ball on the goalline.
Alford isn't a perfect cornerback by any means. However, he's made strides in each season of his career and has made major strides in this season alone. He rarely gets beat for big plays. According to Bleacher Report's Kyle Posey, Alford has allowed just two passing plays of over 20 yards since Week 4.
The most encouraging piece of this extension is the foreshadowing of what Atlanta's plans are for the offseason. The secondary is set for 2017 with Desmond Trufant, Brian Poole, Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen back. They spent two draft picks this past offseason on linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell who have shown flashes of being good players in the future.
Next up has to be the defensive line. Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Grady Jarrett, and Vic Beasley are the only defensive linemen that are safe for next season. Dwight Freeney may retire and it's hard to imagine a situation where Tyson Jackson, Courtney Upshaw, and Jonathan Babineaux are on the Falcons roster next season. Luckily, the 2017 draft class is loaded with defensive line talent and the 2017 free agency pool has talented defensive linemen as well.
It may not look like it every week, but this defense is just a couple legitimate defensive linemen away from truly being able to make noise in the playoffs. Robert Alford's extension gives us great insight to what the team plans to do in the upcoming offseason.