The Falcons don’t draft cornerbacks in the first round all that often. A.J. Terrell becomes just the third corner Atlanta’s picked up in that round of the draft since 2000, with Desmond Trufant in 2013 and DeAngelo Hall in 2004 being the third. Without fail, those selections come with a huge storm of controversy, typically over whether Atlanta has made the right pick or not.
That criticism was a bit more muted with Hall—it was either him or Dunta Robinson, but Hall’s speed made him an attractive pick for the Falcons—but it was very much alive and well with Desmond Trufant. Like Trufant, A.J. Terrell is going to be forever compared to the players Atlanta could’ve swapped up or waited to get, and like Trufant he’s not going to be universally beloved the moment he gets in the door. I thought it would be fun to look back at 2013 and how careers turned out after the initial reception.
The first thing you have to remember about 2013 is that the Falcons hadn’t been very forward-looking at cornerback. Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes were gone, and only Robert McClain and Asante Samuel were kicking around the roster. The expectation going into the draft was that the Falcons would address the position early to give them a true top corner with Samuel and McClain starting, which is why the double dip at corner with a little surprising (but turned out to be a great choice).
There was the usual scuttlebutt that the Falcons might try to move way up for Alabam’s Dee Milliner, and plenty more that they actually did try to go get Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden, and both of those players turned out to be massive busts. Instead, the Falcons took a short hop for a 3rd and 6th round pick to get Trufant. The pick was immediately controversial because many preferred Rhodes, and even I preferred Slay, if not strongly. The fact that the Falcons had to go up to get him with Slay in particular lasting until the second round felt a little like that usual brand of hyper-aggression from Dimitroff and the front office.
Of course, the fact that his NFL.com scouting report, among others, suggested he might be a Day 2 pick also revved up fans. That made it more difficult to sell fans on moving up to get him, as well, even though there was plenty of reason to think he would’ve been gone by their pick.
More importantly, the Trufant and Alford picks actually kicked off a firestorm between fans who preferred Alford and those who preferred Trufant. That one took a while to settle itself out, but while Alford will always have a place in this team’s heart for some of his biggest plays (especially in the Super Bowl), Trufant started 20 more games and was a better player on balance in his career.
Trufant’s 2016 injury and absence in the Super Bowl raises some sad what-ifs, but it’s worth looking at what the Falcons actually got for their investment: A seven-year starter who averaged two interceptions a year, made a Pro Bowl, was consistently above average in coverage, and played in 97 of a possible 112 games over that span. He never became the elite presence the Falcons hoped for—and in the end picking Slay probably would’ve worked out better—but even considering the price the Falcons got their draft capital worth out of Trufant.
What does that mean for Terrell?
I should preface this by noting that obviously Terrell is a different player coming into a different situation, but the impetus behind the pick is very much the same. In both cases, the Falcons cut ties with their former #1 cornerback, took an athletic cornerback whose primary skill is quiet strength in coverage rather than flashiness, and in the minds of many reached to do so.
Terrell’s reception was similar to Trufant’s, though definitely less outright hostile. Two more highly touted cornerbacks also went ahead of him, his selection wound up being a bit of a surprise, and corners some preferred (Trevon Diggs, Jeff Gladney, probably not Damon Arnette), went later.
The primary difference is that the Falcons didn’t have to budge for Terrell, and post-draft reports indicate that the leaguewide opinion of the Clemson cornerback was a lot sunnier than it was among fans and analysts. For all intents and purposes, though, the pressure on his shoulders will be just as heavy as it was for Trufant, if not heavier, because Atlanta doesn’t have any veteran safety nets at cornerback at the moment if he falters.
If Terrell works out as well as Trufant did, he’ll be worth the selection. If he works out better—and I think that’s a distinct possibility given his talent—chances are we’ll be able to re-visit this without any real qualms about who the Falcons might have passed up the chance to get later.