On Tuesday the Atlanta Falcons parted ways with longtime cornerback Robert Alford. The former second-round pick had two years remaining on his contract, but Atlanta decided to eat $1.2 million in dead cap in order to free up nearly $8 million in cap space. Having drafted cornerback Isaiah Oliver in the second round last year, it’s clear the Falcons are looking to get younger at the position by cutting 30-year-old Alford.
Alford is also coming off the worst year of his career.
However, considering Alford’s generally good career with the Falcons, he could be viewed as a hot commodity in free agency. It’s clear his play took a big nosedive in 2018, but teams might not be dissuaded from pursuing him all the same.
The Detroit Lions are a team that will undoubtedly be looking to upgrade the cornerback position. Last year, Detroit made plays at Richard Sherman and Malcolm Butler, but ended up re-signing Nevin Lawson. As a result, Detroit ranked 31st in passer rating allowed and Lawson helped out with five passes defended.
Despite an admittedly horrible year, Alford’s reputation around the league still remains positive. Just ask Lions corner Darius Slay:
So should the Lions make a play for Alford? Let’s take a look at both sides of the argument
Yes, the Lions should try to sign Robert Alford
When he’s good, he’s good
The Lions have been dying for a physical corner that can make a play on the ball to put opposite Darius Slay. When it comes to playmaking stats, Alford has actually been lock-and-step with Slay.
Since 2016, Robert Alford forced 64 incompletions (T-1st), but also allowed 2,751 yards and 134 1st downs (both led the NFL)— PFF ATL Falcons (@PFF_Falcons) February 6, 2019
That last stat obviously comes with a positive and a negative, but it also speaks to the amount of times he’s getting targeted. It’s never really a good thing when you’re targeted that often, but it’s something Alford would likely have to deal with considering Slay will be locking down the other half.
Physical profile match
Robert Alford is now on the free agent market. His #RAS was well inside elite range when he came out, and since it wasn't all that long ago it's likely he still has a lot of that juice. pic.twitter.com/CaPQjemZoA— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) February 6, 2019
In today’s NFL, teams like to spread out their offense with burners and crisp route runners. Speed is the name of the game. To counter that, teams need fast corners. While the Lions already have one speedster in Slay, there’s nothing wrong with having two.
Alford’s age may cause some of these physical traits to deteriorate, but he still has some amazing recovery speed that will prevent Detroit from getting beat deep. That would be good news for a team that gave up 10 passing plays of 40+ yards last year (ninth most).
If you believe the Lions need a more physical corner opposite Slay to deal with the bigger, slower receivers, Alford’s playing style fits that need. Alford is not afraid to get his hands dirty and, as you can tell from his bench numbers, he has a decent amount of strength to back that up.
We all know how much Matt Patricia loves his cornerbacks, but he loves position versatility even more. Alford brings it with the capability to play the inside slot position, especially with that speed he possesses.
Back in 2015, Alford still played as an outside corner in base defenses, but would get nickel looks in certain packages. It was a learning experience for the now-veteran corner.
“I’m glad that the coaches gave me a chance to play a game at nickel,” Alford said of the experience. “I learned a lot from that game. There was some stuff that I can improve on and some stuff that I did well.”
The Lions’ nickel corner position is arguably up for grabs. Jamal Agnew, Quandre Diggs and even Lawson are options, but adding Alford would give Detroit a ton of position versatility for all four.
No, the Lions should pass on Robert Alford
He was bad in 2018... like, really bad.
Alford’s drop off was sudden and drastic. Pro Football Focus puts it nicely here:
The Falcons cornerback had developed into one of the league’s better starting cornerbacks in 2017 when he allowed an 80.7 passer rating in his coverage and broke up 17 passes. This year though, he allowed 849 yards and a passer rating of 138.9.
If PFF grades are more you thing, Alford earned just a 56.6 grade (105th) and a coverage grade of 53.1
He’s a penalty machine
Even in Alford’s good years, he’s been notorious for drawing yellow flags his entire career. Per PFF, Alford has the most coverage penalties of anyone since 2016 (34). Last year, Alford had eight penalties, good for eighth most among defensive backs. In 2016, he had the fourth most (11).
Alford’s drastic drop could very well be an anomaly—just a random bad year. That kind of thing happens all the time, especially at a position line cornerback, where the line between success and failure on any given play is incredibly small.
However, now that Alford has crossed over 30 years old, the chance that he improves drastically are relatively minor. With speed being one of his best attributes, there’s only a greater and greater chance his athleticism will eventually fail him.
If the Lions add Alford, he’ll be nothing more than a stopgap player for a year or two. That may work in the short-term if the Lions expect to compete soon, but Detroit will still need to find a long-term solution at CB2.
This is a tough one for me. On one hand, I feel confident enough that 2018 was just an anomaly for Alford. His reputation and play from the previous two years was good enough to rationally believe that a player doesn’t just drop off like that in a single year. But age is a real concern and the penalty numbers are consistent enough to know that will be a problem if Detroit brings him in.
Ultimately, I think I would be okay if the Lions made a run at him, but I would hope that doesn’t prevent them from making an additional move, preferably in the draft. With Slay already at 28 years old with two years remaining on his contract, the Lions aren’t getting any younger or cheaper at the position. A draft pick would quickly change that.
Should the Lions sign Robert Alford?
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