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Falcons post-2020 roster review: CB edition

A.J. Terrell is locked in as a starter, but things get fuzzy pretty quickly after that.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons invested at least one pick in the cornerback position in all but one draft class in the Dan Quinn era. All that draft capital has not availed them.

Jalen Collins was a second rounder in 2015 and is now out of the league, while Damontae Kazee shifted over to safety for an Atlanta team that liked his fit better there. A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, and Kendall Sheffield remain at the position, but only Terrell is guaranteed a role with a new defensive staff in town. For a team that once landed Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the same class, that’s not terrific.

Cornerback is thus one of the least settled positions on the roster heading into 2021. Here’s a look at why, and how each of the players on the 2020 team fared.

Starters

A.J. Terrell

2020 Stats: 74 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 7 pass deflections, 3 forced fumbles, 67% completion percentage against, 936 yards, 13.2 yards per completion, 6 touchdowns, 109.6 passer rating against

Contract Status: 5th year option in 2024; unrestricted free agent in 2025

Terrell proved to be as divisive as a young cornerback always is in Atlanta, dating back to the days when everyone was debating whether Brent Grimes was great or stunk and continuing into the heady days of whether Desmond Trufant and/or Robert Alford were great or stunk. The truth, as is always the case, was a bit more nuanced.

Terrell was regularly matched up against opposing top receivers in 2020, an assignment that was both often tough and meant he was a rookie corner just waiting to be picked on in the eyes of many quarterbacks. Given that, he had many weeks where he acquitted himself extremely well, including being in excellent position on throws any other corner on the roster would’ve been two steps behind. When he gets a bit more experience and is more aggressive on the ball as a result, that strong coverage and his already stellar tackling skills could make him legitimately great.

He’s not quite there yet, of course, as he suffered from the dread Desmond Trufant disease (always around the ball, rarely coming down with it) and had a couple of games where he had trouble keeping up, including against a gimpy Michael Thomas. You expect a rough start from rookie corners, and while he didn’t have a down year—Terrell finished with the highest Pro Football Focus grade of any rookie at the position—there are much brighter days ahead for him. At absolute worst, he should settle in as a high-end #2 for this defense, but he’ll go into 2021 as the top player at corner for Atlanta and should be expected to take a second year leap.

Isaiah Oliver

2020 Stats: 70 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 6 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, 1 sack, 70% completion percentage against, 745 yards, 11.8 yards per completion, 7 touchdowns, 120.8 passer rating against

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2022

Another divisive cornerback, Oliver has never really lived up to my very high hopes for him since he was drafted in the second round in 2018. He somewhat bizarrely played just 22% of the snaps that year before being thrown in as a starter in 2019, and throughout last year and the early part of this year, his struggles were among the most visible of anyone in the secondary. The physicality has rarely been in question—Oliver can and does tackle aggressively and capably, and he’s shown he can rush the passer if called upon—but he has always mixed stretches of smooth competence with plays where he’s caught flat-footed and his man is off down the field. In the first half of the year Oliver was thrown into a top role due to injuries and did legitimately struggle, but we’re well beyond the point where anyone’s suggesting he’s going to consistently match up well against a team’s top option.

Oliver’s fortunes improved in the back half of the year as the team tried some different things with him, with the coaching staff suggesting he was comfortable in a role that was somewhere between a nickel cornerback and a safety. That’s critical because a brand new coaching staff is entering the picture without any particular attachment to the contract year Oliver, whose flirtation with versatility last year and decent-sized role on special teams will likely have him playing quite a bit. The question is whether he’ll start opposite Terrell, start inside, serve as a top backup at corner, or even get some run at a depleted safety position. He still has the skill set to be an impactful player if the new coaching staff can find the right role for him, but this is probably his last chance to show he’s a long-term piece of the puzzle in Atlanta with free agency looming.

Kendall Sheffield

2020 Stats: 51 tackles, 3 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, 72.9% completion percentage against, 710 yards, 13.9 yards per completion, 3 touchdowns, 119.3 passer rating against

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2023

On paper, Sheffield fared worse than Terrell or Oliver, especially when you consider he allowed as many yards as he did playing just under 50% of the defensive snaps in 2020, while Terrell played 84% of the defensive snaps and Oliver played 77%. Scratching under the surface a little bit makes you wonder if Sheffield was ever fully healthy this season, however.

In the 2020 season alone, Sheffield dealt with a foot injury that cost him games, an ankle injury, two head injuries in one game (possibly but hopefully not a pair of concussions, though the second one definitely was), and a late season illness. He still suited up for 13 games in total but certainly was not a paragon of health throughout, which should be considered in the fuller picture of his development.

That said, despite the coaching staff’s clear appreciation for him over the past two seasons, Sheffield has had an uneven go of things. He still has yet to post an interception, was too frequently caught out of position, and isn’t the surest tackler of the Sheffield/Terrell/Oliver trio or even close to it. His speed can allow him to make up for small miscues and he appeared to come on a little bit as the season wore on, but there’s a reason that he was the one who saw his playing time fade a bit when Terrell, Oliver, and Dennard were all healthy late in the year.

Do we have a strong hunch Sheffield will take a leap in 2021? No, but he’ll only be 25 years old and still has plenty of promise. We’ll hope it happens for him, but the early signs have not been there.


Reserves

Darquze Dennard

2020 Stats: 36 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 5 pass deflections, 62.7% completion percentage against, 310 yards, 8.4 yards per completion, 3 touchdowns, 86.1 passer rating against

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2021

Dennard was justly hailed as a smart signing for the Falcons, given his track record as an effective corner in Cincinnati. He and the entire Falcons secondary had their misadventures in the first two weeks of the season, but he did some pretty brilliant work against Chicago...and then got hurt and wasn’t seen again until Week 9. He would ultimately miss the final three weeks of the season as well, appearing in just eight games on the season.

It was an uneven year on balance, but Dennard was an aggressive, physical presence for a cornerback group badly in need of that and some veteran help, and the season likely would’ve gone a bit better for the entire team had he been healthy and effective for all of it. It’s unclear whether Atlanta will look to bring him back with the new defensive coaching staff, but it’s worth noting that he hasn’t played in more than 13 games since 2017 and appeared in just 17 games over the past two years combined, so the team may go in a different direction. It’s obvious he can still be a useful player when healthy, though.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson

2020 Stats: 9 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 3 interceptions, 4 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, 71.4% completion percentage against, 86 yards, 8.6 yards per completion, 2 touchdowns, 87.2 passer rating against

Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent in 2021

My appreciation for Wreh-Wilson is no great secret, as I think the Falcons have gotten more bang for their buck out of the veteran cornerback than just about any other reserve on defense these past few years.

That was certainly the case this year, as he saw action in several games and mostly acquitted himself very well, including his three impressive interceptions, which wound up being a quarter of the team’s 2020 total. There is no one part of Wreh-Wilson’s game that truly stands out, but he’s competent in coverage, willing to make plays on the ball, and is a fine tackler, the kind of player I’m hopeful the Falcons will find a spot for again in 2021 as veteran insurance for a group that dealt with plenty of injuries and misadventures last year.

Tyler Hall

2020 Stats: 51 tackles, 3 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, 72.9% completion percentage against, 710 yards, 13.9 yards per completion, 3 touchdowns, 119.3 passer rating against

Contract Status: Exclusive rights free agent in 2021

Hall will probably be best remembered for allowing a bewildering touchdown to Mike Evans, but after the game that was laid at the feet of a defensive communication issue rather than the rookie. He played well on special teams and had a productive college career, and the fact that he’s an easily re-signed exclusive rights free agent means he should be back to compete.


Outlook: Uncertain

The Falcons have three players under contract and a couple of easy re-signings should they want them, with Hall being a dirt cheap exclusive rights free agent and Blidi Wreh-Wilson probably amenable to returning for close to the veteran minimum. Simply getting those two under contract, drafting a corner on the draft’s second or third day, and focusing on developing the trio of young starters you already have would be sensible if probably not particularly satisfying.

I have no idea what’s going to happen with anyone but Terrell, though, as he’s locked in to a starting job with the new regime. Dean Pees and company may see Oliver as a better fit at safety, may truly love Sheffield’s potential or view him as little more than a useful reserve, and may want to stock the shelves with players they like and are more familiar with. Things are fairly wide open here, in other words, and no one should be surprised if there’s a draft pick and/or a couple of free agent signings to augment a position the Falcons haven’t been able to settle despite all the draft capital invested in it over the past several years.