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Just how valuable is Robert Alford to the Falcons’ defense?

Since his arrival in the league, Alford has shown solid improvement. In his two seasons under Quinn, Alford’s produced the best two seasons of his four-year career. 

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, many expected the Atlanta Falcons to make an investment in one of their young starting cornerbacks and lock him down long-term. When news broke that the team had reached a four-year, $38 million extension with a certain cornerback, many fans did a double take.

It wasn’t star corner Desmond Trufant who received the extension but rather Robert Alford, one of the more polarizing defensive players on the roster.

The hate that some fans feel for Alford has always been a bit surprising. Sure, he’s had some issues with penalties and isn’t necessarily a shutdown corner, but he’s certainly a reliable second option in the defensive backfield.

Alford played more snaps than any other cornerback in the NFL last season, and he finished the year with a 77.8 grade from Pro Football Focus, which was 34th among corners. While some players have a decline in production after signing a big contract, Alford actually stepped up his efforts and improved as the season went along.

Prior to Dan Quinn’s arrival, the secondary was largely seen as a liability outside of Trufant. Now, there has been an influx of talented young players who have turned the unit, and the defense as a whole into what Alford believes is the fastest squad in the NFL. With Brian Poole and Jalen Collins showing nice potential last year, some have begun to wonder whether one of them should replace Alford at the second cornerback spot.

Alford’s role and promise

So, what exactly does Alford bring to the secondary? Is he as replaceable as a segment of the fan base believes, or is he the sitcom cast member who isn’t fully appreciated until he’s gone?

Since his arrival in the league, Alford has shown solid improvement. In his two seasons under Quinn, Alford’s produced the best two seasons of his four-year career.

In his two years with Quinn, Alford has earned an average PFF grade of 77.4, which puts him firmly in the “average starter” category. Although Alford will turn 29 next season, his steady improvement offers encouragement that his best days might still lay ahead of him, especially if used in the right manner.

Alford is not afraid to gamble. Sometimes that benefits the Falcons, sometimes it hinders them. During the 2016 regular season, he broke up 13 passes, which were the third-most among the league’s cornerbacks. Unfortunately, he was called for 12 penalties in the regular season, the second-most among cornerbacks.

This aggressive nature may explain why fans seem to be at odds regarding Alford. He puts himself in position to make possible game-changing plays - his nine interceptions are the most by an Atlanta corner over the last four years – but he gets caught out of position and doesn’t show sound technique at times when the ball is in the air.

Alford is a bit on the smaller end for a cornerback, but he is much longer than his measurements might indicate. The 5-foot-10, 188-pound corner will struggle against bigger receivers, like he did against Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans last year, but his speed is a real asset. Quinn knows he can’t teach speed, but he can help Alford improve his technique with the ball in the air.

For a player who is fast enough to be in contention on nearly every pass, that technique is the difference between being average and great.

Alford’s strengths and weaknesses might be what make him so hard to evaluate. His greatest assets are his natural athleticism, press coverage ability and physical, big-play mentality. Working against Alford is the lack of technique that he has while taking risks or battling bigger receivers.

Of all the Falcons’ defenders, the aggressive Alford was the player most likely to steal a pick-six from Tom Brady in the Super Bowl; that’s why some fans love him. He’s also the player most likely to get called for pass interference in the end zone on a third-and-long deep pass; that’s why some fans hate him.

Alford’s future

Moving forward, it’s clear that Alford brings a lot to the secondary. Quinn likes to put players in a position where their strengths can shine, and Alford has a lot of natural strengths.

While some may believe Collins is a better fit for the outside cornerback spot opposite of Trufant because of his great size, Alford has shown great improvement in that role. Perhaps new defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel will have something different in mind, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Alford might commit a frustrating number of penalties at times and allow a few more completions than fans would like, but it’s simply not that black and white.

He’s in position on nearly every snap to make a play on the ball, which is far less teachable than how to use proper technique when battling a receiver. There was also consistent improvement in that aspect from Alford as the season progressed. After drawing eight penalties in the first six weeks, Alford was flagged just seven times in the final 13 games.

With Trufant on the other side, quarterbacks have often opted to test Alford in coverage. In 2015, the last season where both corners played the majority of the time, Trufant had a league-low 56 passes thrown his way. Although he saw an increased volume of passes, Alford was exceptional in coverage, giving up less than 40 receptions and allowing just 49.3 percent of the passes to be completed.

Few players on a football field are set up for scrutiny the way defensive backs are. In such a read-and-react position, a player’s speed and quickness are of great importance. Those happen to be Alford’s strong points and part of the reason Quinn chose to invest in the cornerback.

As he continues to develop the technique he began to show late last season, Alford is much more likely to become a great asset to this defense than a liability.