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Falcons CB Desmond Trufant Developing into One of NFL's Best Cornerbacks

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2015

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant reacts before providing a catered Thanksgiving meal to 125 men from the Shepherd’s Inn, the men’s facility of the Atlanta Mission on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Atlanta. Trufant and team members greeted the men with high-fives, served food, danced, and signed autographs as part of their community outreach. The Atlanta Mission provides overnight shelter, job attainment programming, long-term residential discipleship programming and transitional housing for more than 950 homeless men, women and children daily. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
David Tulis/Associated Press

Desmond Trufant is not like Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson or...Dee Milliner.

The 24-year-old didn't take time out of last offseason to proclaim himself the best cornerback. Even if he did, he wouldn't get the same kind of attention that those players did for their comments because Trufant is a relative unknown when it comes to the NFL landscape at large.

Playing for the Atlanta Falcons, on what was arguably the worst defense in the NFL last year, has dropped Trufant into the shadows. He is a player whom Falcons fans likely love and hardcore NFL fans likely know about, but casual fans don't have any storylines to attach his name to.

While Trufant didn't announce his status as the best cornerback in the league through the media, he did let the NFL know that he is one of the very best cornerbacks in the league with his play on the field.

Trufant played to a level in 2014 that neither Haden, Peterson or Milliner have ever reached. That will seem like a brash statement because his career has been understated to this point, but too often the wrong things are focused on when it comes to NFL defensive backs and players in general.

In order to measure Trufant's performances against other cornerbacks across the NFL, his 2014 season needs to be put through the Pre-Snap Reads analysis method.


Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays

Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.
  • Every snap in zone coverage where a one-on-one situation is naturally created. For example, a sideline route from a wide receiver who lined up directly across from the cornerback when that cornerback is covering the deep third in Cover 3.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn't part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn't follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays that don't create one-on-one situations. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays, including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is not an analysis of how many completions the cornerback allowedthat can be found elsewherethis is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arm's reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

Shutdown

This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them toward the sideline, suffocating the space they have in which to catch the football. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.

In Position

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be "In Position," a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.

Individual Matchups

No.ReceiverSuccessful Snaps/Total SnapsPercentage
1Cordarrelle Patterson6/6100%
2Brandin Cooks4/4100%
3Davante Adams4/4100%
4Marques Colston9/1090%
5Jordy Nelson6/786%
6Jeremy Ross5/683%
7Alshon Jeffery4/580%
8Reuben Randle10/1377%
9Vincent Jackson9/1275%
10Josh Gordon6/875%
11Corey Fuller3/475%
12Kelvin Benjamin20/2774%
13Kenny Stills5/771%
14Mike Evans9/1369%
15Steve Smith9/1369%
16Michael Floyd4/667%
17Antonio Brown5/1050%
Analytical Analysis Through NFL.com

Only receivers with at least four qualifying snaps against Trufant were included on this chart.

Weekly Breakdown

Trufant showed off impressive consistency on a weekly basis during the 2014 regular season. He didn't face a huge number of qualifying snaps because of how the Falcons set their defense up in so much zone and because their opponents often didn't need to force passing plays because of game situation.

For the season as a whole, Trufant had a 76.6 percent success rate.

OpponentQualifying SnapsIn PositionShutdownFailed Coverages
New Orleans Saints131210
Cincinnati Bengals7520
Tampa Bay Buccaneers9603
Minnesota Vikings9603
New York Giants181215
Chicago Bears8611
Baltimore Ravens161114
Detroit Lions151014
Tampa Bay Buccaneers181314
Carolina Panthers181044
Cleveland Browns10622
Arizona Cardinals8323
Green Bay Packers12822
Pittsburgh Steelers15906
New Orleans Saints171124
Carolina Panthers12813
Totals2051362148
Analytical Analysis Through NFL.com

When compared to other cornerbacks, it quickly becomes clear that a 76.6 percent success rate is very impressive. Last season, Richard Sherman posted a 78.9 percent success rate. Sherman has consistently hovered around the 80 percent mark throughout his career.

Darrelle Revis put up an incredible 81.9 percent success rate during the 2013 season, but his decline was represented by a drop to 72.5 percent in 2014. Revis' drop-off from Sherman's level was significant, but his 72.5 percent success rate was still impressive.

That becomes clear when you examine the struggles of other cornerbacks.

Before signing a huge contract last offseason, Haden posted a 62.8 percent success rate for the 2013 season. That came after he posted a 73.6 percent success rate in 2012. In 2013, Patrick Peterson enjoyed a 69.6 percent success rate after posting a 62.9 percent success rate the season before.

While a certain level of cynicism should be explored when presented with these raw numbers, the context that comes with them doesn't reflect negatively on Trufant.

In fact, if adjusting for responsibilities within scheme, matchups and how big the plays were that were given up, Trufant's percentage actually doesn't do his performance justice.

The Tape

Of his 205 qualifying snaps, Trufant lined up in off coverage on 117 plays. Off coverage was defined as greater than five yards away from the receiver he was covering. Therefore, if the receiver lined up behind the line of scrimmage, that distance was taken into account.

Because of how often he played in off coverage, a large number of Trufant's failed coverages came on shorter underneath plays.

However, while he was often getting failed coverages because of his initial alignment, he also showed off an incredible ability to read the play and proactively attack it. He regularly arrived at the receiver when the ball arrived to either break the pass up or bring the receiver down immediately for a negligible gain.

Because of how well he executed his assignments from off coverage, the biggest plays Trufant gave up were short.

Credit: NFL.com

In the above image, Trufant is lined up in off coverage against Mike Evans to the top of the screen. Evans runs an in route and catches the ball for a first down. He is immediately hit by Trufant, but the defensive back can't prevent the first down conversion.

He can't prevent the first down because the play was executed perfectly from the offense. He did limit the yards after the catch to no gain.

With impressive consistency, Trufant was able to minimise plays where the offense came away satisfied. His fluidity and acceleration, as well as his outstanding mental recognition, allowed him to constantly play aggressively on underneath routes despite not engaging the receiver at the line of scrimmage.

Quick feet and body fluidity are common traits among the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Revis at times has resembled a terminator with his ability to change direction in tight areas, while Sherman's seems to defy physics with some of his movements with a frame that large.

Trufant can rival Revis in his prime when it comes to quick feet and fluidity.

Credit: NFL.com

On a play against the Green Bay Packers, Trufant's footwork and balance in coverage was pushed to an extreme. He lined up to the left side of the defense across from Nelson. Nelson was lined up off the line of scrimmage so Trufant was seven yards away from him.

Nelson is going to run a route that works to Trufant's alignment, but that alone doesn't make this play easy for the cornerback.

Credit: NFL.com

The stem of Nelson's route directs him toward Trufant's outside shoulder. Trufant initially angles his feet and shoulders toward the quarterback infield, so once Nelson pushes far enough into his route, the cornerback must react.

As soon as Trufant begins to turn his hips toward the receiver, Nelson stops his feet.

Nelson plants his inside foot to threaten a curl or out route that draws the attention of Trufant. However, even though Trufant allows his momentum to be pulled forward slightly, he is quick to reverse that change with his quick feet and fluidity.

The cushion that Trufant had from the beginning of the play made it easier for him to recover, but his sheer balance and quickness to not overcommit to any movement was exceptional.

If this encapsulated the whole play, it would have been an impressive play for the 24-year-old. Yet that wasn't the end. Aaron Rodgers extended the play in the backfield, so Nelson had an opportunity to freelance and make more than one extra cut.

Credit: NFL.com

Nelson turns toward the sideline as he comes to a dead stop. Trufant was on top of his route, so the separation that comes here is unavoidable. What is more notable is Trufant turning with Nelson. He immediately reacted to the stop from the receiver and instantly stopped his own momentum.

Trufant is in position to pressure Nelson if Rodgers throws the comeback, but he doesn't. Instead, Nelson is forced to continue his route again.

This time he runs infield, where there is space to attack. Trufant trails Nelson infield and aggressively attacks his underneath shoulder to put himself in position to undercut the pass. Because of how the play developed, Trufant couldn't stay on top of the receiver.

Credit: NFL.com

With great hustle and exceptional talent, Trufant is able to undercut Rodgers' slightly underthrown pass. He knocks the ball away before Nelson ever gets an opportunity to touch it. Considering how long this play lasted and how many breaks Nelson put in his route, Trufant wouldn't have been expected to make this play.

Average NFL players don't make these kinds of plays.

Typically, a mark of a good NFL player at any position is the ability to play at a speed faster than his peers without becoming reckless. Trufant shows off this ability in coverage and as a run defender. He may not be a great tackler at the point of contact, but he anticipates and attacks ball-carriers effectively.

Credit: NFL.com

Although this is a passing play, it offers up a perfect example of how impressive Trufant is when asked to come up and make a tackle on a ball-carrier. From the very beginning of the play, he has his eyes in the backfield.

This will allow him to diagnose the play as it develops instead of reacting to it after accounting for his assignment in coverage.

Credit: NFL.com

Once Manning begins his throwing motion, Trufant plants his back foot to push forward. He doesn't fully commit so that he would be caught out on a fake, but he puts himself in position to move downfield once the ball is released.

With a bigger player in front of him as a blocker, Trufant works around the block instead of trying to work through it.

Credit: NFL.com

The Giants had got the perfect situation that they wanted in this scenario. Wide receiver Reuben Randle got the ball in space with one blocker ahead of him and only Trufant between them and the pylon. Yet because of Trufant's alert play, the Giants didn't score.

Not only did they not score, they never came close to threatening the end zone and were limited to a minimal gain.

Trufant plays bigger than his frame, but his frame also hinders him at times. 

Credit: NFL.com

He doesn't have any major negatives, but one of his two worst flaws is his ability at the catch point. Trufant comfortably plays the ball in the air, but bigger receivers in the league can outmuscle him for positioning and leverage.

For a player of his size, Trufant does well to not be manhandled at the catch point. His aggressiveness and awareness allow him to play the ball at its earliest point on a regular basis.

His other most significant weakness is his ability to catch the ball. While Trufant's ball skills are impressive when it comes to locating it in the air and reacting to it ahead of receivers, he has major issues with bringing the ball into his possession.

On at least four occasions in 2014, Trufant couldn't bring in passes that he should have for interceptions. He ultimately finished the season with just three despite his ability to consistently get his hands to the ball.

While interceptions are a huge positive for cornerbacks who can consistently create them, an inability to catch the football is probably the best weakness to have if you must have one. So long as Trufant can continue to prevent receptions, he should be able to be a top-tier cornerback in spite of his catching ability.

Spots and Routes

LCBSlotRCB
Qualifying Snaps145852
Success Rate77%88%73%
Analytical Analysis Through NFL.com

Trufant primarily played at left cornerback throughout the season, but he did follow specific receivers around in some games. The Falcons lacked talent all over their defense last year, so there was always only so much that the cornerback could do.

His huge success rate in the slot can't be taken at true value because of the size of the sample, but he has the traits to play both inside and outside effectively.

RouteSuccess Rate
Post100%
Seam92%
Sideline86%
Double Move83%
In79%
Comeback75%
Crossing73%
Out73%
Slant69%
Curl63%
Analytical Analysis Through NFL.com

As you would expect from a cornerback who primarily played off coverage, most of Trufant's failed coverages came against shorter routes. Even considering his alignment, his success rate against deeper routes was very, very impressive in 2014.

Teams particularly struggled to throw inside of him deep down the field, and that is a reflection of his understanding of positioning. Trufant knows when to run with a receiver and when to cut underneath his route.

Conclusion

2014 will go down as an unremarkable year for the Falcons as a whole. The defense in particular won't want to remember how they performed. By Football Outsiders' DVOA metric that measures efficiency, the Falcons had the worst defense in the NFL, the second-worst pass defense and the third-worst run defense.

While the defense as a whole was disastrous, Trufant can only feel encouraged individually.

He appears set to challenge Richard Sherman for the label of best cornerback in the NFL next year, and it can easily be argued that he has already surpassed Darrelle Revis on that particular totem pole. Trufant is 24, so he hasn't hit his prime yet.

New head coach Dan Quinn is arriving at the perfect time to aid in the development of Trufant. Quinn may help Trufant and will probably receive a lot of credit for any success he has, but chances are Trufant's trajectory is set.

If he was able to perform so expertly with what was happening around him last year, it shouldn't matter what situation he finds himself in moving forward. Trufant should be the next big star at the position.

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