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Desmond Trufant trying not to dwell on 'what ifs' as he makes his post-injury comeback

The Falcons' cornerback is making his way back to the field after suffering a season-ending pectoral tear in Week 9 of 2016, but there's one play from Super Bowl LI that he can't stop thinking about.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Who’s on your list of top cornerbacks in the NFL? Surely it includes the likes of Richard Sherman, Josh Norman, Patrick Peterson, AqibTalib and Chris Harris Jr., in some order. Marcus Peters, Janoris Jenkins and Malcolm Butler could also be on your list. These guys talk the talk, back up their talk with their play on the field, have been to the playoffs and have earned All-Pro recognition. 

But did you consider Desmond Trufant?

If not, here’s a few reasons why you might have taken him for granted. Maybe because Trufant, who is heading into his fifth season with the Falcons, didn’t play in the Super Bowl after a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2016 season in Week 9. Maybe because Trufant has only tallied seven career interceptions (partly to blame on the weakest part of his game—his hands), and he doesn’t make bold proclamations in the media. Maybe because his two older brothers, Marcus and Isaiah, had the surname in the public sphere for a combined 19 NFL seasons.

But taking him for granted would be unwise.

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“I feel I’m in the conversation [of top cornerbacks in the NFL],” Trufant says after OTAs in early June. “It is what it is because everyone has their own opinion of who’s the best and who’s the top guy. I know for a fact that every Sunday the opposing team is planning for me. They know I’m out there and that I can be a game-changer. That’s really how I look at it.

“Everybody else has their opinions and that’s cool. I’m not discrediting nothing, but I know when I line up that the opposing receiver is going to respect what I’m doing. It’s that simple for me.”

In 2015, Trufant’s last full season, he played in 979 snaps and was targeted just 56 times on his way to the Pro Bowl. In 2016, before Trufant’s Week 9 injury, he was playing like a top-five cornerback. But then Buccaneers WR Mike Evans landed on his chest on a routine tackle—Trufant doesn’t miss tackles—and the pain was unbearable. He didn’t play again that season.

The Falcons’ young defense, which was clearly the weaker side of the ball compared to its historic offense last season, held up in November and December without him. Robert Alford slid from right corner to left corner, and Jalen Collins and Brian Poole got increased reps in place of Trufant, who was forced to watch from the sideline. Offenses featuring the likes of Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers managed 20 and 21 points, respectively, against the defense in the NFC playoffs.

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“When he went down I was a little down, but I knew at the end of the day that he was going to be there for us,” Alford said during Super Bowl week. “He’s always there in meetings talking to us about the things we can improve on. He was always on the sideline with Coach M [Marquand Manuel], and they were telling us whatever they see that we can improve on. We lost him on the field but we still gained him on the sideline.”

But it was clear the team needed him on the field in Super Bowl LI. The Falcons were without their best defensive player for all 99 plays as Atlanta’s 28–3 lead slipped away, leading to a clinic from Tom Brady. Trufant and the rest of the Falcons have tried to move on from the game, but he still sometimes wonders about the what ifs.

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“Sometimes because I know I could have made an impact,” Trufant says. “I know I could have helped my team. It happened for a reason. It’s just part of my story now, so what do I do from now? That’s how I’m approaching it from here.”

The biggest what if—one that it doesn’t seem Trufant has even considered until a reporter brings it up—centers on the biggest play of the Super Bowl. What if Trufant had been on the field on the play when Julian Edelman made his impossible fourth-quarter catch?

Trufant is the key to Atlanta’s Cover-3 scheme and is based at left corner. But Dan Quinn moves Trufant around, and Trufant has been known to follow the opponent’s top receiver inside on occasion. What if the Pro Bowl corner—two inches taller than Alford, who could only tip Brady’s pass—had been stalking Edelman? Might Brady have even tried Trufant there like so many other quarterbacks decided against the past two seasons?

“I don’t really run it like that,” says Trufant after saying he might have been in coverage on that play. “I just know for a fact I could have made an impact, however it could have been. I know the guys were playing great. The DBs were playing great and making plays all over the field. But like you said, it does run through my head like I could have done this or that or I could have helped us on this play, but it is what it is. I’m just growing from it.”

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Trufant was heading into 2017 on his fifth-year option, but the Falcons locked him up with a five-year extension worth up to $69 million. Excluding Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson who is on a franchise tag, Trufant is the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league in average salary per year at $13.75 million. He inked a $15 million signing bonus that turned his $8 million salary on the fifth-year option into into $1.5 million, which should clear the way for a future extension for running back Devonta Freeman if Atlanta so chooses. And just as importantly, it ensured that the Falcons will have its defensive core of Trufant, Alford, Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell signed through at least 2019.

From his time in Seattle, Quinn knows the importance of having a rangy, versatile corner controlling the defensive backfield.

“I’ve always felt like he could change direction and play man-to-man,” Quinn said. “That’s one of the things you want to evaluate. Can he stay at the line of scrimmage and play man to man? I’d say those two things: the speed, the ability to play man-to-man and then the ability to say you’ve got the tough job, go take it.

“And in his cool voice he’s like, ‘I’m down Q, bring it on.’ I knew he was the competitor that we were looking for.”

Trufant took part in individual and positional drills at last week’s OTAs, and he plans to do the same at this week’s minicamp. The Falcons are in no hurry to rush either Trufant or Julio Jones, and both should be full-go by training camp.

Right now, Trufant isn’t sure if he’ll wear a brace across his chest like many other players who have dealt with the same injury, fearing that it could mess up his swag. But brace or not, Trufant knows quarterbacks may be looking to test him coming off the injury and the new contract.

“They always test you, regardless if you’re making $1 or making millions,” he said. “That’s just how the game goes if you’re playing my position. I’m looking forward to it, though.”