Before Revis Island and the Legion of Boom, Deion Sanders was the standard for cornerback play.
While the Hall of Famer is years removed from his playing days, his imprint in the league lives on. However in Atlanta, someone else is donning No. 21 in red and black.
Second-year Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant is an emerging talent. After being tasked with defending the opposition’s No. 1 wide receiver during his rookie season, expect substantial growth from Year 1 to Year 2.
“I obviously knew the history of the number,” Trufant told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. “I want to be in the company of the elite. That’s what the team is expecting of me and that’s what I’m expecting for myself.”
Reminiscent of Sanders, Trufant has blazing speed. So much speed that he chased down a sprinting CJ Spiller from behind 70 yards downfield. His backpedal is silky smooth. He’s tough. He takes pride in his tackling. And he wants to be a well-rounded defender.
“Being a Pro Bowl cornerback is definitely a goal of mine,” Trufant said. “That’s what I’m working for every day. Obviously I want to win. That’s the most important thing. But I definitely have individual goals of being an All-Pro and Pro Bowl cornerback”
Don’t be mistaken, though. Trufant admittedly understands he has a lot to prove.
Coming from a line of brothers — Isaiah Trufant and Marcus Trufant — who have played in the league, he goes about his business a little more meticulously than other players who had a taste of success during their rookie season. He learned how to be a pro before his NFL days began.
Ask which quarterbacks he intercepted last year, he recalls it effortlessly.
“Cam Newton and Kirk Cousins, I believe” Trufant said.
Ask which other passers he could’ve picked off, his thoughts become a little more long-winded.
“Man, that’s so long ago it’s kind of blurry, but I’ll tell you this,” Trufant pauses. “I know I easily could’ve turned half of those pass deflections into interceptions. And that’s what I’ve been working on. When the opportunity presents itself, you have to capitalize on it. That’s where my focus is at.”
It’s no secret that if a cornerback wants to be considered one of the greats, interceptions are a must. Working on the Juggs machine after practice each day is only half the battle for Trufant.
“I’m practicing coming to the ball,” Trufant said. “I’m practicing fighting for the ball through contact because usually interceptions are contested balls.”
Being mindful of contact is a big part of playing cornerback in the league these days.
This preseason the NFL has stressed points of emphasis on its officials, flagging illegal contact and defensive holding much more frequently than the past. While cornerbacks with long frames and aggressive styles have been the latest fad, playing with good technique and body placement will be much more coveted moving forward.
“If you’re in a good position then there’s no reason to hold,” Trufant said. “Usually when a defensive back holds, they’re in a trail position or he’s not on top position. The cornerback position is hard. It’s a hard one. That’s why you see guys getting paid what they are, because it’s a hard position.”
This past offseason notable cornerbacks such as the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson and the Browns’ Joe Haden each scored monster contracts.
In fact, Peterson’s five-year extension worth $70 million made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. As the game continues to evolve into a passing league, a premium is placed on legit cover corners. The second contract, while it’s certainly impossible to ignore, isn’t on Trufant’s radar yet.
“It’s hard not to notice that,” said Trufant, regarding the extensions some players inked over the offseason. “It’s right there in front of my face. I just try to get better every day, though. I want to maximize the day. Everything else will take care of itself. I just want to become the best me.”
Trufant, 23, keeps his focus squarely on the team. A re-tooled defense bolstered by free-agent acquisitions like nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson, the secondary is surely to improve in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s system. A year ago the unit allowed the opposing quarterbacks to complete 66 percent of their passes, which ranked for 28th in the league.
“We learn from our mistakes,” Trufant said. “We have the right guys in the right position to improve. In the secondary, we’re a year older. We have big guys up front and guys who can rush the passer. I think we’re going to be a lot better and I’m excited for the first week to show people what we can do.”
Working against wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White in practice has prepared Trufant for the gauntlet of pass catchers he’ll defend in the NFC South. The six-foot, 190-pounder will get everyone’s best shot each week, but it’s not something he’ll back down from.
Instead, he’ll meet it with the same enthusiasm other former greats did, who paved the way for lockdown cover corners.
“I want to be that prime time, elite, shutdown guy,” Trufant said. “That’s what I work for.”