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Cornerback is lining up to be a true team strength in 2022

Atlanta has a young secondary loaded with depth and at least one true star.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Counting the number of positions that figure to be great for these 2022 Falcons is a short-lived exercise. You’ve got kicker, uh, hm, um, and cornerback.

What makes corner worthy of calling out here in April, before the draft has even happened and the team has the opportunity to add even more talent to the group, is partially just that: It’s one of the only positions of true strength this team is likely to have. What makes it doubly compelling, though, is that the group is built in such a way that it can be effective now and has considerable promise for the future.

ESPN’s Mike Rothstein wrote about this very topic the other day, with a focus on what the A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward starting duo will mean for this defense. The upshot is exactly what you’d think: Having a pair of starting cornerbacks that good, plus Isaiah Oliver at the nickel, should make life significantly easier for this Falcons defense. Assuming good health, that trio sets Atlanta up to effectively slow opposing receivers in a way they haven’t been able to in some time.

In full, the depth chart is better than anything the Falcons have had since 2017, when they had Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Brian Poole operating more or less at the height of their powers. A.J. Terrell blossomed into one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL a year ago, Casey Hayward remains a very good player as he approaches his mid-30s, and Isaiah Oliver looked like he was on the cusp of a breakout season in Dean Pees’ defense in 2021 before he got injured. Beyond that trio, promising second-year corner Darren Hall, upside CFL addition DeAundre Alford, veteran Kendall Shefield, and second-year pro Avery Williams are all competing for a couple of spots, and Hall and Alford are legitimately intriguing.

Hayward, for his part, sounds more than a little excited about playing opposite Terrell.

“This is probably my first time in my career,” Hayward said, “where on the other side, I’m like, dang, this guy is super talented and can go out there and lock the number ones up and one lot of the top guys in the league.”

While Hayward can’t reasonably expect to be part of a future Falcons dynasty due to his age, please stop laughing, the Falcons have plenty of pieces here who are young enough to do so. Terrell is just now entering his third season, and the Falcons will have the cash to either happily extend his fifth-year option or give him a giant deal. Oliver, too, is young enough to have several good seasons ahead of him, and if he looks as good as he did in 2021 he’ll have a new contract from Atlanta on the way. Add in Hall, Alford and Williams—and the draft capital to keep adding to this group—and it’s not hard to see this being the core strength the Falcons defense builds around. If they happen to hit on Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins at safety, maybe that’s even the entire secondary as a strength, though I’m not quite ready to call that a given.

The Falcons’ defense will still be a work in progress this year—you’re not building a high-end pass rush overnight—but the cornerback group should be fun to watch and may well be pretty damn good. The hope is that they’ll make 2022 a more watchable season, but also that Terrell, Hayward, Hall, and the gang build on this year and are ready for a stellar 2023, when the Falcons fully expect to contend again.