The Atlanta Falcons went into the 2013 draft looking to bolster their secondary, after the unit got exposed in the playoffs just a few months prior. As a result, general manager Thomas Dimitroff doubled down on the cornerback position at the top, selecting Desmond Trufant in round one and Robert Alford in round two.
That tandem would go on to form one of the most prolific CB duos in franchise history, spending six seasons opposite one another.
The fact that Alford, a Louisiana native who went to college at Southeastern Louisiana and even had a brother who played 12 games for the Saints in 2005, told his family that they had to drop their New Orleans Saints fandom after he got drafted by Atlanta makes him forever a favorite in my book.
The Robert Alford era has ended in Atlanta after its sixth year, as the Falcons released Rocky last month, and saw him sign with the Arizona Cardinals.
Let’s look back at Alford’s time in Atlanta on a year-by-year basis.
Alford was brought in as a rookie CB taken with the 60th overall pick. He signed a four-year, $3.4 million rookie scale contract and more than lived up to it.
Alford played in all 16 games of his rookie season, and started four of them. There were some good moments, the best one of which was him intercepting Drew Brees at the Louisiana Super Dome in his first career game, but Alford overall looked overwhelmed. That’s to be expected, however, as CB is one of the most difficult positions to adjust to going from college to the NFL.
It didn’t help that the defense collapsed around he and Trufant, with no semblance of a pass rush to be found, making their lives even more difficult in what amounted to a 4-12 season.
Things didn’t get much better for Alford in 2014, as the pass rush was still nonexistent (22 sacks ranked the Birds 30th in the league), and the struggles continued. Alford allowed an opposing passer rating of 111.6, and a career-high 17.1 yards per reception.
The three interceptions and 12 passes defensed was a sign of progress, but the bad outweighed the good for Rocky in his sophomore campaign. His best game came in a Week 7 defeat to Baltimore, where he picked Joe Flacco off twice.
Alford played in and started 10 games, as his season was cut short due to a broken wrist.
With Dan Quinn taking over as the new head coach of the Falcons, things finally started to turn for Robert Alford in 2015. He consolidated his starting spot opposite of Trufant in training camp (Jalen Collins had just been drafted in the second round earlier that year, and was seen as serious competition for the role).
Alford allowed a career-low 80.5 opposing passer rating in coverage and decreased his yards per reception allowed to 14.5. He allowed 550 yards in coverage in 15 games started in 2015, which was nearly identical to the 547 yards he allowed in coverage in just 10 games in 2014. This is no doubt due to the fact that the third-year man allowed a career-low completion percentage against of just 50%.
Rocky registered two interceptions, 15 passes defensed and allowed four touchdowns.
Of course, I can’t talk about 2015 without mentioning the overtime pick-six Alford had against Kirk Cousins to win the game against Washington and push Atlanta’s record to 5-0. That was the high point in the season before the team’s collapse down the stretch.
The 2016 season was another mixed bag for Alford, but the negatives were masked by the team’s success, something which was never there in Alford’s career up until now. With the offense as prolific as it was in 2016, some of Rocky’s defensive lapses weren’t as dire, and there was more room for error.
Alford allowed a career-high 1,000 receiving yards in coverage and nine receiving touchdowns against, but he did so while facing a career-high 125 targets. His passer rating against was 100.1, and he committed a whopping 16 penalties throughout the year (an average of one per game).
These numbers are objectively terrible, but Alford also tallied 19 passes defensed, 59 tackles, 16 run stops, started every game, and we should remember that he was thrust into the (unfamiliar) No. 1 CB role following Trufant’s season-ending injury in Week 12.
Both of Alford’s regular season interceptions came in the Week 4 win over Carolina, and one was returned for a touchdown. He also registered a pick-six against Tom Brady in the Super Bowl to seemingly put the game out of reach, giving Atlanta a 21-0 lead. Had the Falcons held on to win that game, Alford returning that interception may have ended up being a statue outside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
2017 was Robert Alford’s magnum opus — the finest year of his career. Rocky rewarded Atlanta’s investment of a four-year/$38 million ($21 million guaranteed) contract extension from the year prior with a stellar campaign.
Despite facing 112 targets, Alford held opposing QBs to a 55.4% completion percentage, and allowed just three touchdowns. His receiving yards against also decreased to 732, which is far more reasonable than the quadruple digits allowed the year prior. The quarterback rating when targeting Rocky in 2017 was 80.7, which is very good considering the number of targets he faced.
Alford also tallied career-highs with 20 passes defensed, 65 tackles, and 19 run stops, achieving a new level of play. He was Atlanta’s best corner, and helped lead the team back to the playoffs with a 10-6 record.
Rocky was arguably Atlanta’s best player in the Wildcard win against the Los Angeles Rams, allowing just 17 yards in coverage on eight targets, and holding Jared Goff to a horrific 39.6 passer rating on those targets.
Things came to an unceremonious end for Alford in 2018, which was statistically the worst season of his career. The fact that Atlanta lost both starting safeties and all-world linebacker Deion Jones to long-term injuries within the first three games was a blow to the defense, but the team looked to veterans like Alford to step up in their absence, and he didn’t.
Rocky allowed 849 receiving yards in coverage on just 74 targets, allowing a career-high 68.9% completion percentage against and 138.9 passer rating against when targeted. Mind you, this is less than 20 points below a perfect passer rating of 158.3. The 12 penalties committed were also less than ideal.
Alford pointed out via Twitter that there’s more to this story that fans weren’t aware of as it was happening.
I didn’t just fall off. I played injured..#PutSomeRespectOnMyName— Robert Alford (@rockorocky) March 13, 2019
In the end, the Falcons couldn’t justify keeping Robert Alford at a $9.1 million cap hit this season after the year of regression he just had. The team saved $7.9 million in cap space by releasing him.
Robert Alford spent six years in a Falcons uniform, and even though he was a frustrating player at times, I’ll always look back at his time in Atlanta with fondness. The way the relationship ended is a shame, but remember how the old saying goes: Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.
It’s such a shame that the Super Bowl collapse had to happen, as Robert Alford would have forever lived in Atlanta Falcons folklore had it not.