A primary narrative of the Atlanta Falcons’ 2020 training camp was the anticipation around Calvin Ridley preparing to make “the leap”. This summer, the buzz is beginning to really heat up around another young player seemingly about to do the same thing: A.J. Terrell.
We all know how that leap worked out for Ridley. The third-year wide receiver evolved into one of the league’s toughest players to guard, and he finished tied with Davante Adams for the fifth-most receiving yards last season with 1,374 yards. Ridley also finished in the top 10 with nine touchdowns. He blew past his goal of topping 1,000 yards for the first time and established himself as a true No. 1 receiver in the process.
If Terrell can make anything close to a similar level of improvement – which is admittedly a lot to ask for any player – it may be the single-most-important factor in how quickly the Falcons can turn things around.
Word out of camp is that Terrell is exuding a level of confidence in his second year and his play is apparently backing that up. Perhaps the perspective of a new coaching staff and some new veterans in the secondary that is helping Terrell out, but it could be – as Dan Quinn often liked to mention – that a player’s growth is usually greatest in his first three years. It took Ridley three years to really make the leap. Terrell might just be ahead of schedule, and people are taking notice.
“It was good to see A.J. step up,” coach Arthur Smith said at camp. “He gets down there in tight spaces, and he went up there and bowed up on CP [Cordarrelle Patterson]. CP is not small, either. That, to me, was impressive to see from A.J. today as well.”
Any level of improvement for Terrell would be significant because he had a really strong rookie year as it stands. The former Clemson Tiger had the best PFF run defense and pass rush grades among rookie cornerbacks by a wide margin. In fact, his run defense grade of 75.1 was 10th among all cornerbacks in the NFL last season. Most notable among his stats from last season is this little gem: Terrell played more coverage snaps than any other rookie corner.
If it holds true that cornerback is one of the hardest positions to adjust to for a rookie, then it must be a huge positive that Terrell saw as much action as he did. Reps are the very best way for a player to develop, and Terrell got a lot of them against some of the league’s premier wide receivers.
In the book The Games that Changed the Game by Ron Jaworski, there’s a chapter on Bud Carson’s Cover-Two defense. In that chapter, Jaworski mentions that Carson prized intelligence in his defenders and wanted to instill the idea of “proactive reaction”. In Carson’s defense, the formation of the offense would dictate how the defense played, meaning the defensive call might not come until just before the snap.
To employ this defense effectively, Carson’s players had to understand route progressions and how pre-snap alignment affected coverage. Those are complicated aspects of defense still employed today, but it appears as though Terrell has gained confidence in this area of his game.
Reports indicate that Terrell is in the right place at the right time and beginning to make savvy plays because of his understanding of his role in the defense. He showed flashes of this as a rookie, but it’s particularly heartening that this is shining through in practice. With greater experience, it makes sense that Terrell’s understanding of the nuances of cornerback, and Dean Pees is the type of coordinator who will rely on his players’ mastery of his defense while also adjusting to their specific strengths. In that way, he’s not too dissimilar from Carson.
“If you’re going to play multiple coverages, you have to have a guy that’s able to come up and tackle and has got good vision, and to be able to play in zone coverage,” Smith said of his defense in Atlanta. “We’re multiple back there and obviously there’s certain outliers that can play in any scheme.”
Now, not all of Terrell’s stats were positive as a rookie. His overall PFF grade (60.8) and coverage grade (57) were nothing to write home about, but they weren’t horrid either. And for as much as we talk about the difficulty of excelling as a rookie, some of the greats shined right out of the gate, including in recent years.
Jaire Alexander had a PFF grade above 70 in his first two seasons before leading the league with an elite 90.7 grade in 2021. Jalen Ramsey and Marlon Humphrey are two others who posted an overall grade in the 70s as rookies before truly exploding onto the scene. That’s not to say elite players haven’t always played at an elite level.
Xavien Howard, who finished just behind Alexander with an 87.3 grade in 2020, had a 61 overall grade as a rookie in 2016. Likewise, Marcus Peters and Darius Slay both had grades in the 50s in their rookie seasons before becoming two of the most notable cornerbacks in the league.
It’s obvious that development is possible, but the cream of the crop usually make that jump early. We saw Ridley advance to a new level after working on his leg strength to drive in and out of breaks last offseason. Now, it seems Terrell’s understanding of defensive adjustments and offensive alignments has improved.
As a rookie, Terrell’s play was average to above average. He had flashes of greatness, but consistency is what truly separates the stars from the tantalizing. If in his second year, Terrell makes the leap, it could be more consequential for Atlanta’s planned turnaround than anything else. And all signs indicate that it’s happening.