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Considering Robert Alford’s Atlanta Falcons legacy

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He’ll go down as one of the best second-round picks of the last 20 years, and despite his warts, as one of the better corners the team drafted in that span.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In 2013, the Atlanta Falcons tried to secure their future at cornerback in the post-Brent Grimes era by adding Desmond Trufant in the first round and Robert Alford in the second round. By any objective measure, that decision was a huge success. Both players were also immediately—and remained—extremely divisive.

On Tuesday, the Falcons ended the era, cutting ties with Alford after six seasons in Atlanta. Trufant remains under contract and his contract virtually ensures he’ll remain with the team until 2020, as his contract loses dead money in 2021 and especially in 2022. Trufant does all the quiet things a cornerback should do well, from coverage to pursuit to (mostly) tackling, but his horrendous hands and occasional lapses drive fans crazy and likely will for years to come. He has, however, lived up to his draft billing.

So did Alford, though, and I wanted to take a little time to pay tribute to him today. Many draftniks thought Alford would be the superior player to Trufant when he joined the Falcons, and while that didn’t prove to be true, he had many more exciting big plays than Tru, mixed in with a number of frustrating, eye-catching penalties and mistakes.

When Alford was really good—as he was at times in 2015, through much of 2016, and certainly in 2017—he looked like one of the better No. 2 cornerbacks in the league, with evident athleticism and instincts. When he was really bad—as he was at times in 2013, 2014, and certainly 2018—he got beat a lot.

That stat perfectly captures the Alford era. He was the NFL equivalent of a three true outcome hitter in baseball, living on an island against a receiver and either making an impressive play to prevent a catch, allowing a downfield reception, or committing a costly penalty. During his very best years (and in particular, during a Super Bowl where had had a pick six and came a knuckle’s length away from sealing the franchise’s first championship win), the number of mistakes were dwarfed by the aggressive coverage and the plays he made on the ball. During his worst years, like 2018, the reverse was true, and his age (30), contract ($7.9 million in cap savings by cutting him), and 2018 decline were the primary reasons he was cut in the first place.

But I think the “good riddance” from plenty of fans misses the mark here when you acknowledge the good that Alford has done and his place in the team’s history.

Alford’s place in the franchise history

Deion Jones, William Moore and Curtis Lofton are the only Falcons with a credible case to be considered better second-round picks in the Dimitroff era than Alford, and Lofton arguably wasn’t in Atlanta long enough. Going all the way back to 2000, you can really only add the great Jonathan Babineaux to that list.

Critically, Alford is the best cornerback drafted in the second round since 2000, and he has a credible case for one of the better cornerbacks drafted since then, period. He proved more durable and more talented than Anthony Midget, Jimmy Williams, Chris Houston, David Irons, Wilrey Fontenot, Chevis Jackson, William Middleton, Chris Owens, Dominique Franks, Dezmen Southward, and Jalen Collins. Only Trufant, DeAngelo Hall, and hopefully Isaiah Oliver will prove to have had a better career in Atlanta than him, and Alford still has time to build on his overall career with a new team. For a team that strikes out way too often in the second round, Alford was an exception, a player who finished 1st overall in team history for pass deflections, 20th in interceptions, tied for 4th in defensive touchdowns, and 23rd in tackles. There’s no question his pass interference habit, costly as it sometimes was, will remain a part of his legacy, but I think over time we’ll come to appreciate the good work he did in Atlanta. I obviously hope Oliver eclipses him—I want this team to win and win big—but I respect what Alford brought to the franchise during his time in Atlanta.

There are few who would argue that Alford was a great cornerback, but he also largely didn’t deserve the heat he took throughout his career in Atlanta. Instead, he was a good one with stellar highs and frustrating lows, but he was also a net good player who gave the Falcons six quality years during a time where they were Super Bowl-caliber contenders, however briefly.