FLOWERY BRANCH —
Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders was an interested onlooker at the Falcons’ practice Friday.
He’s in town for a youth football weekend and made a point of bringing the teams out to visit the Falcons, where he also did some preparation work for his in-season job with the NFL Network.
Sanders, 45, who started his career with the Falcons after being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 1989 draft out of Florida State, and went on to play for four other teams. Sanders, an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl winner, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
While on the field with the coaches, Sanders studied Falcons rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, who to the casual fans watching the open practice on the hill appeared to struggle.
After chatting with coach Mike Smith about the team and the young corners, Sanders granted an exclusive interview to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I like them,” Sanders said. “They are aggressive corners. They are going to make some mistakes. They are going to do a lot of things right as well.”
Trufant and Alford showed they are not used to the speed of NFL receivers. They both were beat on some deep passes while Sanders watched.
Fans on the hill were tweeting about the plays and some were alarmed. Sanders was not.
“It’s a maturation process,” Sanders said. “Thank God, (the Falcons) have a great offense that will afford them the chance to mature without every play being a matter of life and death.”
Sanders was fine with Trufant, the team’s top pick, requesting to wear his No. 21 21 jersey.
“That’s a sign of respect, first and foremost,” Sanders said. “I like the kid. I really do. I like both of them. (Alford) is nice. It’s hard to see which one is the best. You can’t go by where they were drafted at. These guys are on an even keel. They are good young corners. They have a tremendous upside.”
Trufant was the 22nd player taken in the draft. Alford played at Southeastern Louisiana, an FCS college, and was taken in the second round (60th overall).
The Falcons made a major draft-day trade with the St. Louis Rams to move up seven spots in the first round to select Trufant.
After letting three of their top five cornerbacks leave after last season, the Falcons needed to restock the position. They were high on Trufant, who starred at the University of Washington and comes from a NFL football-playing family.
Trufant, who’s 6-foot, 190 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. Alford, who’s 6-foot, 186-pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds.
Trufant is expected to compete for the starting right cornerback position. Alford is not out of the picture and could earn time in the revamped secondary.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan also believes the young corners have had a good start to camp.
“They are doing a great job,” Ryan said. “That’s part of playing that position. You are going to get beat from time to time, especially against the guys that we have. They made some plays out there today.”
Ryan pointed to some specific plays.
“For lack of a better word, they (expletive) me off a little bit a couple of times,” Ryan said. “They tipped the ball around. Trufant had a nice interception along the left sideline earlier. I like what I’ve seen out of them.
“They are doing a great job. I’m fired up that we have them. They both have a lot of swagger, and they talk. I like that. I like that from defensive guys. I think they fit in really well, and I think they will do a great job.”
Trufant seemed to struggle early in practice. Alford was beaten on the last two plays, first by Julio Jones and then by Roddy White.
“Those young corners are going to be learning under fire,” Smith said. “Every play is a learning experience for them, and they’ve got to put previous play behind them and move on. That’s what a corner has to do. They are going against two of the best wide receivers in the NFL.”
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