There has always been a major impact from small schools in the NFL Draft. The greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice, went to Mississippi Valley State while Walter Payton went to Jackson State, both just from the SWAC Conference. The only thing has is changing is how increasingly easy it is for scouts to find players, no matter where they are or the size of their school. This year will have its fair share of impact from smaller schools and the one who might end up being drafted the earliest is Robert Alford, cornerback from Southeastern Louisiana of the Southland Conference. The Southland Conference does not have the tradition the SWAC and CAA conferences have, but Alford has a chance to make history. Robert Alford is a tremendously talented cover corner who is an aggressive player against the run who has a chance to get into the first round, but warrants a pick in the top of the second round even if teams hold the level of competition he played as well as his age against him.
Alford measured 5’9 7/8” 186lbs at the Senior Bowl. He has incredible explosiveness and acceleration enabling him to get to full speed quickly. And his speed stands out as being impressive regardless of the level of competition. Alford is just fast. He has the feet and the hips to be a great cover corner. He needs to continue to add bulk. Alford is not small weight wise, but he will get knocked around at times and will play smaller than he is at times. It is unclear how much more bulk Alford can add to his frame, but he should be aiming to get somewhere around the 190lb area, which would be a good build with his height.
Major college football has come a long way in terms of their strength training programs and how they develop players physically. Southeastern Louisiana is not major college football and does not have the money in terms of facilities or personnel to maximize training and it will be interested to see the difference for Alford after training with a performance academy and then in the NFL. It could make a substantial difference for him in terms of his performance in testing as well as his functional strength in the NFL. The only potential issue is his age. Alford is currently 24, so he might be closer to reaching his physical peak than a number of other prospects.
Against the run, Alford is a tenacious player. He plays absolutely fearless and will attack downhill without hesitation and he can make some tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And when he has a head of steam, he can hit with a little bit of pop and put the ball carrier on the ground with relative ease. He has a natural leverage advantage and will do a good job of hitting the ball carrier in his midsection, wrapping him up and taking him down. However, he will lunge too much and throw himself at the ball carrier, especially when he is trying to avoid blocks. And blocks are a problem as well. He can be erased from plays at times by bigger wide receivers and he will have a bigger problem in the NFL if he cannot find a way to hold his ground better. Still, his attitude against the run is tremendous and if his effort to improve matches that attitude, it should not be a huge problem in the NFL and could become strength over time. Alford was the Lions strong side corner.
In pass coverage, Alford is a tremendous cover corner. He can play in tight man right up on the receiver and is not afraid to be physical or play off man and break toward the ball. Alford needs to get better in how he delivers contact in press, but he mirrors receivers well and often ends up playing in the receiver’s hip pocket. He has plenty of speed to keep up with the fastest receivers and also has good recovery speed. Alford also possesses good vision and awareness, locates the ball well whether the pass is to his man or somewhere else. This also enables him to be a good zone corner in addition to the fact he has good range. Alford has shown good ball skills and is a threat not only to intercept passes, but is a threat to return them. The issues Alford has are with bigger receivers, both in terms of height and strength. Alford will compete all the way, but he can be boxed out and out muscled at times.
The Lions were also not afraid to send Alford on the blitz. Because he can be so effective as a tackler coming up on the attack, he can make a play if the run comes at him as well as the fact he can get to the quarterback with his speed and put a good hit on the quarterback.
Alford also presents value as a returner, both on punts and kickoffs. Given the precarious nature of being a kick returner in the current NFL landscape, his ability to punt return brings far more value. Teams did not want to kick to him; with good reason. He returned seven punts for a total of 99 yards and a touchdown for a 14.1 yard average. Some of his ability to return was due to the fact that Alford was so physically dominant in the league he was playing, but nevertheless appears to be quite capable of contributing in the NFL.
Alford’s best fit is as a weak side corner that lets him bulldog opponents in man coverage. He might be best suited to play in the slot but he can definitely play on the outside as well. Alford can contribute in a scheme that asks their corners to support the run to protect the edge. While Alford should be able to contribute immediately as a starter, there will be people who knock Alford due to the fact that he did not play top level competition in college. He did show well at the Senior Bowl and definitely gave the impression he belonged in that group, but it is possible the adjustment to the NFL could be difficult and he would start as a nickel corner and work his way into the starting rotation, but he never appeared overwhelmed there, so it seems like the NFL should not be too big for him either. He also should have a shot to see if he can be the team’s punt returner.
The comparison for Robert Alford is former Florida Gator Janoris Jenkins who spent a year at North Alabama before being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. Jenkins’ size and skill set are extremely similar to Robert Alford, but Jenkins possessed top ten talent last year. The problem was off the field for Jenkins, enough to effectively drop him a round in the draft. Jenkins was able to prove his wares in the SEC against some incredibly talented receivers who are now NFL luminaries like Julio Jones. Jenkins came in and had a tremendous rookie year scoring a ridiculous four defensive touchdowns. Alford might not possess the quite the level of talent Jenkins has, but he is by no means a poor man’s Jenkins. The issue is that Alford was simply not on a stage where he could prove it like Jenkins did before ending up at North Alabama.
Had Robert Alford played at LSU as opposed to SELU, the conversation of his draft stock would certainly be different. While Alford has not played the highest levels of competition, he has been an effective player against everyone he has come up against, including in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. If teams focus on that in addition to his skills, he has a chance to surprise people with how early he goes. Still, he will be a 25 year old rookie in the NFL and that could hurt him for teams looking to build with younger talent. Still, there are teams who are more concerned with landing a good player and important cog to their defense in a push to make the Super Bowl that may not be overly concerned that Alford is 25; just that he can be a great player now. If teams believe that and like what Alford says in the interview process, he has a chance to sneak into the end of the first round due to his ability to be a great cover corner and a willingness to be an aggressive run defender, but if teams are concerned about his age, Alford could slip as far as the bottom of the second round as teams aiming for younger players pass over him. In either case, the team is getting a player who appears poised to play well from the word go with a tremendous passion for the game of football.
Northwestern State 2012
Missouri & Lamar 2012
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