Around The League will profile the top 25 players we see Making the Leap in 2014. No. 16 on the list: Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Why Trufant is on the list
The rookie cornerback shone as a bright spot in an otherwise dark and dreary campaign for the Atlanta Falcons -- one the NFL's most ignored franchises, even in good times.
Those who dismissed the Falcons early in their season-long spiral missed an entertaining corner with NFL size and speed who should have gotten more hype as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
When I say he has NFL speed, I mean NFL sppppeeeeeeeeeed.
For your viewing pleasure:
(Apparently Dick Stockton wasn't aware of Desmond's Tru-speed.)
What a microcosm of the Falcons' season: Busted tackles by a doughy front and Trufant races C.J. Spiller down for a touchdown-saving tackle.
Standing 6-foot, 190 pounds with a 4.38 40-yard dash, Trufant's combination of size and speed allows him to stick on receivers. He collected 17 passes defensed, with two interceptions and 55 tackles in his first season. He allowed a 53 percent completion percentage and a QB rating of 75.2 against, per Pro Football Focus, fantastic numbers for a rookie corner.
Trufant's stats and size match up well when compared to the first seasons of other now-dominant (and well-paid) cornerbacks such as Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis.
Watching his film on Game Rewind it is evident Trufant's speed is his biggest asset at this stage. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan used him prolifically in off-man and bail-zone techniques -- which he was familiar with from his time at Washington. This allowed the quick corner to diagnose plays and react, using his speed to recover when the ball was in the air.
Trufant is adept at playing the ball and fighting through a receiver to knock the ball away. He has the ability to track the ball in the air and make a break when it appears his man is open. If the Falcons' offseason plan to add a more consistent pass rush comes to fruition, Trufant should be in a position to make even more plays.
The tenacious defender started off the preseason slowly (part of the reason he was dismissed as another rookie corner likely to struggle) but by season's end he had quarterbacks looking the other way. By the Week 17 matchup against the Carolina Panthers, it was fascinating to watch Cam Newton consistently look toward Trufant's side and immediately move to his next read, not even daring to tempt the young corner.
While many players are on this list because we expect them to make huge strides next year, Trufant is on it because even a mini-stride forward would put him on the path to joining the list of dominant corners. Those NFL Films cameras during "Hard Knocks" should aid Trufant's justified leap into the national football consciousness.
Let's just consider these areas to improve.
Making the Leap in 2014
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While he's no slouch in press coverage, Trufant could improve his strength in this area. There were times when he was beaten inside on quick slants too easily, leading to penalties or easy receptions. Like many rookies he was also burned on several double moves for big plays.
Trufant could also be asked to play more in the slot in 2014 if needed (say, perhaps, if the Falcons end up signing Brandon Flowers). He performed well in his opportunities -- giving up a 71.7 passer rating from opposing signal-callers -- but played just 106 snaps in the slot, per Pro Football Focus, about 10 percent of his overall snaps.
This is nit-picky, but he did tend to get blocked on the edge by receivers. He was a fairly sure tackler when not blocked, however, he could improve on his ability to get off a block quicker to blow up outside running plays. (Of course, we knew a different Falcons No. 21 who believed tackling was a "business decision.")
Given the names that ended up in the Pro Bowl last season, I'd say Trufant deserved a trip to Hawaii.
With a better defensive front in 2014 -- the Falcons hope -- putting opponents in longer down-and-distance situations and pressuring quarterbacks more frequently, Trufant will have more opportunities to make plays. I'd put him on a preseason list as a favorite to be in Arizona for the Pro Bowl in 2014.
With cornerback becoming a focal point of NFL defenses, players like Richard Sherman, Peterson, Haden and Revis are household names with varying claims on the amorphous "Best Corner" title. If you are seeking the next up-and-comer to join that list, look Trufant's way.
In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast," the guys make the case that multiple teams have closed the gap on the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC.