From the minute he was drafted at the end of April through the entire virtual offseason, rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell sat in the same seat in the same room for every meeting. A creature of habit in terms of his preparation was thrown a curveball like none other to stat his NFL career.
After an impressive training camp, Terrell was primed to have a breakout rookie season. Praise from his teammates and coaches, it appeared he was everything he'd been advertised to be. Terrell was taken by the Falcons with the No. 16 overall pick in this year's draft after three years at Clemson.
Despite starting the season 0-2 and giving up 78 points in the first two weeks of the season, Falcons' coach Raheem Morris – who was the defensive coordinator at the time – was impressed with what he saw from his first-round pick.
"We're talking about a rookie, we're talking about a guy who was out there and he's playing hard, he's playing fast, he's playing physical," Morris said. "He went out throughout the day and played some sticky coverage on some really good wideouts. He stood up in some really big moments."
Terrell was well on his way to getting comfortable in the defensive scheme and just when it looked like he might be starting to catch his stride, he was given some unfortunate news.
Two days before Atlanta's Week 3 matchup with the Chicago Bears, Terrell learned he had tested positive for COVID-19 and became the first NFL player to miss a game due to the virus. Terrell missed two games for the Falcons and was activated off the COVID-19/reserve list on Oct. 8.
"It was just a minor setback," Terrell said. "Took the days that came with it. Worked on my body, stayed in tune with what the team was doing."
Terrell was able to stay present with what was going on with the team through virtual meetings. For some that might be harder to do than others, but Terrell's mature approach allowed him to not miss a beat.
Things started to click for Terrell in Week 6 when the Falcons went on the road to defeat the Minnesota Vikings. Terrell recorded his first interception and was awarded a game ball following the game which he plans to give to his son, Aundell Terrell III.
From the minute he was able to step on the field and start practice, the Falcons' coaching staff knew they had something special with Terrell. Not every rookie has the daunting task of going up against a future Hall of Famer in Julio Jones and a former first-round pick in Calvin Ridley every day.
"To watch him get to camp and to go challenge Julio and to challenge Calvin and not have any backdown, any fear and really just be outside of the box for a rookie, I knew that would translate over into the season," Morris said. "I didn't know how well, but when you talk about rookie corners, he's certainly a pleasure to watch, he's certainly a pleasure to coach and I just love his demeanor. I always have admired that about him."
Terrell has played in six games and has recorded 29 tackles, one quarterback hit, one pass deflection and one interception. Cornerback is one of the hardest positions to play in the NFL at this level and Terrell appears to be made of all of the right stuff to be successful.
By no means has Terrell been perfect in every game. He's taken his fair share of losses in coverage, most recently one against the Panthers when he got beat by wide receiver D.J. Moore on a double move that turned him around and gave up 42-yard completion on third down with less than two minutes to go.
But what gives Morris and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich the confidence to keep putting Terrell in those situations is they know he's not likely to make the same mistake twice. Since he was drafted by the Falcons, he's done nothing but rise to the occasion. No matter how many times he gets beat, he doesn't break. That's because of his rare "short-term memory" approach that he already has that usually takes players a few years to get.
"I've been around a lot of rookie cornerbacks who get put out on that island and are going to have some bumps in the road, some really rough days," Ulbrich said. "And it's normally a roller coaster regarding confidence and technique and there's just so many things a young cornerback has to learn. Those typical bumps in the road I've seen way less with A.J. His poise and what he's done out there is not indicative of a rookie, it's more indicative of a five, six, seven-year vet and combine that with great physical skill, he's been a huge bright spot for us."
Cornerback Darqueze Dennard has been designated to return from injured reserve. Dennard is free to return to practice and work with the rest of his teammates. Take a look at the best images from practice in this gallery, presented by Quikrete.