It only took one game for everyone to realize Robert Alford was going to bring excitement to the Falcons. Drew Brees decided to test him on a crossing pattern in his first NFL game, and Alford made him pay by running step for step with Marques Colston and taking the ball right out of the veteran receiver’s hands. The play showed Alford’s feistiness, ball skills, and awareness. Although he was bound to allow his fair share of receptions, the 2013 second round pick possessed all the traits to be an above-average player.
The journey towards becoming a solid cornerback wasn’t smooth. Alford struggled mightily in 2014 before ending the season on injured reserve. From his being overmatched against bigger receivers to biting on double moves, opposing quarterbacks had plenty of success picking on him. Alford showed considerable improvement in 2015. He started to allow fewer big plays and make wiser decisions. After struggling with penalties to start the 2016 season, Alford bounced back and played an integral role in the Falcons’ memorable Super Bowl run.
What makes Alford’s decline so staggering was his best season came in 2017. The enigmatic cornerback played at a consistently high level. He produced a career high in pass breakups, along with only allowing a passer rating of 80.7. Considering how much quarterbacks target him with Desmond Trufant on the right side, Alford more than held his own against a plethora of playoff teams. In an impressive playoff victory over the Rams, his lockdown performance was crucial in the Falcons producing one of their finest defensive showings under Dan Quinn.
Nobody could have anticipated Alford’s colossal regression. Similar to Ryan Schraeder, a once-reliable, underappreciated player became a legitimate liability. Quarterbacks repeatedly found openings when throwing in his direction. Per Football Focus, Alford allowed 849 receiving yards for a passer rating of 138.9. Those are dreadful numbers for someone as talented as him. That’s what makes it difficult to pinpoint how a good player can fall off so dramatically in one season.
Examining Alford’s downfall
A costly missed interception on opening night was the start of Alford’s nightmare season. Nick Foles misread the coverage, which gave Alford a golden opportunity to give a struggling offense good field position. He opted to let the ball hit his chest rather than extend his arms. That led to a brutal drop in a narrow defeat. What ultimately proved to be a game-changing mistake became a year filled of critical errors and coverage breakdowns.
The Falcons’ undermanned defense was notorious for missing tackles during the entire season. Alford was at the forefront of their tackling woes. Ted Ginn Jr. and Giovani Bernard made him look silly in the process of getting into the end zone during the early part of the season. From not properly wrapping up to taking poor angles, it was baffling to see a veteran player make these types of blunders.
Alford endured some difficult stretches during the course of his career, yet still managed to bounce back every time. That’s what made most hesitate on being overly critical. His poor play didn’t start raising major concern until his dreadful performance against the Giants. On a rare night where the Falcons’ defense played well, Alford was responsible for nearly every big play. The embattled corner allowed three completions for more than 40 yards. Sterling Shepard beat him on multiple occasions, including on a 53-yard completion. Odell Beckham Jr. unsurprisingly got the better of him as well. That game made everyone wonder if this was the beginning of an unexpected decline.
Alford never recovered from that terrible showing. Although his play improved in the final three games of the season, it didn’t make up for the amount of times he got beat during meaningful games. Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott, and Aaron Rodgers didn’t hesitate to throw in his direction. They could rely on their intended receiver to win on the outside by either creating separation or drawing a penalty.
The biggest flaw in the veteran’s game will always be his tendency to play overly physical ball. Whether it’s from getting caught hand fighting or grabbing the opposing receiver illegally downfield, the sight of a yellow flag being thrown in Alford’s direction is all too familiar. He was penalized a whopping 12 times in 15 games. That is far too many penalties for someone who considers himself a “top ten corner,” as players of that caliber typically know how to remain composed against top receivers. Alford continuously proved to be overmatched and undisciplined against decent receivers, let alone the upper echelon.
When I spoke to Alford following the loss to Philadelphia, he didn’t make any excuses about the rule changes. He was fully aware of his knack for getting penalized. Working on his technique and not stressing about things that aren’t in his control were commendable steps in his quest to build off an excellent 2017 season. That unfortunately never transpired, which leads to major questions about his outlook in Atlanta.
Assessing Alford’s future
Based on earning a base salary of $9 million in 2019, it’s hard to imagine the front office deciding to keep Alford around. Dan Quinn has been looking for an outside cornerback since he walked in the door. Drafting Jalen Collins in the 2015 draft showed his intentions of wanting a bigger outside corner. His desire to add one didn’t vanish, as Isaiah Oliver was the latest defensive back to be drafted in the second round. It’s a testament to Alford’s skill and durability that he’s fended off challengers to this point.
Alford turned 30 years old last November. Although some cornerbacks have managed to bounce back in their early thirties, Alford likely won’t receive the same luxury in Atlanta. The current roster has major flaws, which must be addressed this off-season. A starting trio of Trufant, Oliver, and Brian Poole should be able to hold their own depending on how Oliver acclimates to a bigger role.
It will likely be a cruel end to an otherwise memorable run for Alford. Solid number two corners don’t grow on trees, and Alford had some wonderful stretches in Atlanta. That’s what should be remembered when evaluating Alford’s career. How he played from 2015 to 2017 was essential in the Falcons going from a bottom-five defense to a top-ten caliber defense, even if they didn’t quite get there.