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An intense, productive first season puts A.J. Terrell in a place to be a defensive cornerstone

On a team in need of young difference-making talent, the 2020 first-round pick appears to be on the verge of solidifying himself as a legitimate number one cornerback.

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NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

High expectations are always going to be the norm for a player selected in the first round. That comes with the territory of an organization believing in a player who can develop into a star and help bring a championship to their franchise. Some of those players are put in a precarious position, one where most people don’t consider them to be a first-round caliber pick or believe another player is going to make a bigger impact than them. Both unfortunate viewpoints apply to A.J. Terrell. It was evident when the Atlanta Falcons selected him.

In what proved to be a major surprise at the time, Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff decided to select Terrell with the 16th overall pick. The former Clemson Tiger was labeled as a second-round talent by most analysts. His most notable game was in the national time game against LSU, where Ja’Maar Chase repeatedly torched him. With CeeDee Lamb somehow still available, many were clamoring for the Falcons to turn their dynamic duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley into a terrifying trio with Lamb. The front office instead opted to address a massive hole at the cornerback position by selecting Terrell. That thought process was widely mocked given Terrell’s status, the state of Atlanta’s below-average defense, and a certified stud receiver in Lamb falling to them on a silver platter. While the Falcons’ defense is certainly not very good, and Lamb looks as good as advertised, Terrell largely silenced critics with his intensity and intelligence in his first season as a pro.

What made Terrell’s rookie season more impressive was how he handled adversity from the beginning. It was always going to be a learning experience against the outrageously talented receiving corps of Seattle and Dallas. What happened afterward couldn’t have been prepared for. Terrell tested positive for COVID, which led to him missing two games. Within a week of returning, Quinn ends up being fired for the team’s appalling 0-5 start. Between having to recover from testing positive for COVID to playing for a bad team that doesn’t have their head coach anymore, it was an incredibly difficult start for the rookie corner. He never shied away from the pressure.

Terrell immediately made an impact following Quinn’s exit with his first career interception against the Vikings. It was an overall impressive performance, one where Terrell displayed improved tackling and tremendous play recognition. That game showcased what he was capable of and it carried over into the final two months of action. There was a sense of controlled aggression, impressive astuteness, and sharp technique when watching Terrell. Whether it was against someone with impeccable footwork like Keenan Allen or game-altering speed like Tyreek Hill, Atlanta’s new young corner relished every challenge.

In the Falcons’ most dominant win last season, Terrell shined against the Raiders. He was tasked with covering another 2020 first-round pick in Henry Ruggs III. The ultra-explosive wide receiver entered the league with major buzz, mainly about his jaw-dropping speed. It was inevitable that Terrell was going to be matched up against him on the outside. On third and five, the Falcons are playing man coverage across the board. With Sharod Neasman as the lone deep safety, the corners don’t have much margin for error. Terrell decides not to jam Ruggs at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to break cleanly into his route. That can be dangerous considering the type of burst Ruggs possess. Terrell isn’t fazed one bit and prepares to run stride for stride. He does exactly that.

The fluidity of this pass breakup is on full display in the battle of first-round rookies. Terrell stays balanced and transitions smoothly to keep pace with Ruggs, as it becomes apparent that a big play could be emerging. Besides the fluidity of his movement, one of Terrell’s biggest attributes is his ball skills. What he does brilliantly is locate the intended pass and wisely time his break on the ball. As the pass is headed towards Ruggs’ inside shoulder, the opportunity to nullify a big play is there for the taking. Terrell leaps up and uses both hands to break up the pass.

There is no instance of grabbing onto Ruggs to make a play on the ball. Terrell breaks this pass up with his length, movement, and long speed. It was one of his most impressive plays of the season. For a player that is long and rangy, Terrell also possesses the necessary long speed to cover true deep threats.

What will need to be improved on is his positioning against tall, physical wide receivers. Keenan Allen and Mike Evans both feasted on him during stretches of their respective games, and there were times Terrell got caught up in hand fighting and failed to look back at the ball when his back was turned. Those errors played a major part in Terrell allowing nearly 70% of passes thrown his way to be completed, per Pro Football Focus. If a second-year leap is going to occur, the number will need to be reduced to some extent.

On balance, though, another stellar corner appears to be developing in Atlanta. Few players have impressed in training camp more than Terrell. His route recognition has made every quarterback that targeted him pay for their mistakes. His savvy mentality is make it clear that he’s someone who can be a tone-setter. That will be needed in a mostly unproven secondary, who is in dire need of exactly that following Keanu Neal’s departure.

What will also be needed is young defensive players establishing themselves as consistent difference-makers to help rebuild a struggling unit. Other than possibly Foye Oluokun, there isn’t a better young player amongst the defensive personnel who is capable of becoming a genuine franchise cornerstone like Terrell.