A.J. Terrell seemingly vaulted himself into the conversation as the league’s best cornerback with his pristine play during the 2021 season, but a recent poll of NFL executives, coaches, scouts and players indicates otherwise.
As part of a series for ESPN, staff writer Jeremy Fowler conducted polls and interviews with more than 50 people involved at various levels of the NFL to determine who those directly involved in the game view as the top 10 at each position. In the recently published ranking of the NFL’s 10 best cornerbacks, Terrell is listed at No. 9.
“His production last year was insane,” an NFC scout told Fowler. “He rarely gave up an explosive play.”
More good stuff: Falcons player profile: A.J. Terrell
According to Fowler, the highest ranking Terrell received was No. 2, which seems more in line with his play last season. At least one voter had Terrell outside of the top 10 altogether.
After a rookie season in which Terrell, the No. 16-overall pick in 2020, was often in position against opposing teams’ top receivers but struggled to make the deciding play, he blossomed into a true shutdown corner in every sense of the word. Terrell led the league with only 0.37 yards allowed per coverage snap; he also ranked fourth in completion percentage allowed among corners with at least 80 targets, and he allowed a passer rating of just 61.0 when targeted, which was just behind J.C. Jackson and Trevon Diggs among corners with at least 80 targets.
A.J. Terrell didn’t allow more than 32 yards in coverage in a game this season pic.twitter.com/s73vnv9nGm— PFF (@PFF) February 22, 2022
Fowler didn’t provide a quote that explained why Terrell would rank ninth among cornerbacks in this poll, and since it’s behind a paywall, I’m not going to list all 10 players who were named. But, it seems safe to mention that Terrell is ahead of Dallas’s Diggs, who led the league with 11 interceptions and was named an All-Pro last year, and just behind Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey, who is considered a premier defender but is coming off a down year.
Terrell’s ascension has given Atlanta’s defense another much-needed star. The team added Casey Hayward Jr. to the lineup opposite of Terrell, giving the Falcons their best duo since peak Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and that’s slightly underselling the potential here. Another season close to the one he put together in 2021 would easily make Terrell a household name, but there are those who have already taken note.
In Pro Football Focus’s own cornerback rankings for the 2022 season, Terrell earned the No. 3 spot behind only Jalen Ramsey and Jaire Alexander. This is what writer Anthony Treash had to say about Terrell:
“Terrell was one of the biggest breakouts of the 2021 season — and the lone bright spot on Atlanta’s weak defense. The 2020 first-round pick allowed an NFL-leading 0.37 yards per coverage snap — a mark that was just one-hundredth of a yard off from the single-season PFF record owned by Asante Samuel (2010) and Nnamdi Asomugha (2008). He’s proving to be a scheme-versatile player with elite movement skills, speed and discipline. The former Clemson Tiger has developed into a reliable island corner, too, shutting down Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and D.J. Moore last year.”
Furthermore, Terrell ranked among the top cornerbacks in both man coverage and zone coverage last season, according to PFF. In the piece, author Sam Monson notes that Terrell allowed a mythological 7.7 passer rating when targeted in zone coverage. That type of coverage versatility will be critical in allowing Dean Pees to fully implement his multiple defense.
Atlanta’s defense will be tested early and often this fall. Five of the Falcons’ first seven opponents ranked in the top half of the league in scoring offense, including three top-10 offenses. Terrell could potentially face the likes of Michael Thomas, Cooper Kupp, D.K. Metcalf, Amari Cooper, Mike Evans and Deebo Samuel to start the season, culminating that run with what will be a hugely anticipated rematch with Ja’Marr Chase in Week 7.