When the Atlanta Falcons selected Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell with the 16th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, there were some draft pundits who called the selection a reach.
By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Terrell had prepared a nice dish of crow for each of those doubters.
Terrell has been arguably the best rookie cornerback in the NFL this season and the most reliable corner for the Falcons in 2020. Despite missing two games while on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Terrell is second among Atlanta cornerbacks with 44 tackles and has three pass defenses, one forced fumble and one interception.
"We put him in some of the tougher situations, tougher matches, and his play count – I think he has the most plays out of anybody in the secondary," Falcons secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. "I've just been really pleased with how he's playing, especially as a rookie. Rookies usually don't play well early."
Terrell has earned an overall Pro Football Focus grade of at least 60 in six of the nine games he's played this season, and his season grade of 68.5 ranks second among all rookie corners but first among players with at least 205 defensive snaps.
What's been more impressive with Terrell is who he's been playing well against. Most recently, Terrell broke up a pass while running step for step with Raiders speedster Henry Ruggs, the first wide receiver taken in this year's draft. Terrell has also matched up with Michael Thomas, D.K. Metcalf, Robby Anderson, Allen Robinson and Amari Cooper among others.
Part of the reason people weren't as high on Terrell as some other corners coming into the draft was because of the stats star LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase put up in the national championship game while A.J. Terrell was mostly matched up against him. Chase, however, is considered the top receiver prospect in college football and Terrell made several plays of his own against him.
"A lot of people held that national championship game against A.J. in the evaluation process, and I totally saw it in a different way," Whitt said. "He showed me a young man that will fight, that has a short memory, that will go out there and is very competitive. That's what he is. He's going to be a really really good player in this league."
This Sunday, Terrell will get a rematch against Michael Thomas, regarded as one of the very best players in the league. Against the Falcons in Week 10, Thomas caught nine passes for 104 yards; Terrell was targeting five times in the game, giving up four catches for 52 yards.
The Saints are very aware of the type of player Terrell has been this season, though, and the potential he has for the future.
"We paid close attention to him and had very high grades (on him in the draft)," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Obviously, we pay attention to our division, and he's someone that had great production, a great skillset in college and comes from a winning program. It's not a surprise at all to see him having the success he's having as a rookie."
No rookie is ever perfect though, especially at the cornerback position, and Terrell has taken his lumps this year as well. The 380 air yards Terrell has given up are the most among all Falcons defenders, but that's largely a product of how teams are targeting. Among Atlanta cornerbacks, Terrell's average depth of target of 13 yards is highest. He's been exceptional at limiting yards after the catch, however, surrendering just 125 yards.
Terrell has also been improving. He's only given up more than 100 receiving yards once this year – in Week 8 against Carolina – and hasn't allowed more than 55 yards in a game when targeted in the Falcons' last three outings. If he can keep that up, he will continue to prove the doubters wrong.
"I've been really pleased with A.J.," Whitt said. "He's been consistent all year. I mean, he's been consistent since he stepped on the field from training camp."
Rookie cornerback AJ Terrell made his presence known on Saturday. Take a look at the best images from Day 10 of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.