Editor's note: This is No. 8 in a series detailing each position group on the Falcons' 90-man roster.
FALCONS ROSTER PREVIEWS
If the offensive line is the make-or-break unit for the Falcons' offense, the cornerbacks are that group on the defensive side of the ball. Desmond Trufant is gone, and the cornerback youth movement is in full swing in Atlanta. First-round pick A.J. Terrell is expected to take over Trufant's starting spot opposite of Isaiah Oliver, who is entering an important third season. Kendall Sheffield impressed during his rookie year, and the coaching staff is optimistic for what he can do in Year 2.
2019 returning production
|Player||Games started||Tackles||Passes defended||Interceptions||Forced fumbles||PFF grade|
Here are four things to know about the Falcons' cornerbacks heading into 2020:
1. A.J. Terrell will need to be ready from Day 1
If Terrell is not out there with the defense for the first game of the season, something has gone wrong. Teams don't use the No. 16-overall pick on a player without the intention of placing him in the starting lineup, and that's the mindset the Falcons have with Terrell. Fortunately, he seems to have the right mindset to handle that responsibility. The top corner at Clemson, Terrell has played in some of the biggest environments college football has to offer and matched up against the very best players in the country.
"I have the right mindset," Terrell said of possibly starting from Day 1. "Thrown in the fire, don't look at it that way. Just come in ready to compete and don't make it bigger than what it is. It's what I've been doing for years, so just coming in, competing, making an impact and just gaining trust and being a leader on the defense."
As all rookies do, Terrell will take his lumps early on in his NFL career. Especially considering he will play in a division with receivers like Michael Thomas, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin who have Drew Brees and Tom Brady throwing to them. Terrell's performance will be important for the Falcons in the short-term, but his growth throughout the year will be an indicator of how high his long-term ceiling is.
2. Falcons 'excited' for Kendall Sheffield's growth
Prior to the draft, Dan Quinn was asked whether or not he felt Sheffield had the makings of a "number one corner for the Falcons." Quinn's answer indicated how high the team is on the second-year corner:
"Yeah, I do feel that way. We played him a lot in the slot when we were playing in nickel defenses. That wasn't something he had tons of experience at. I thought he kept growing, was really up for the challenge. In our league and division, certainly in the NFC, there are guys you want to at times match upon if you need to. He's definitely somebody with the speed and short space quickness to do that. I definitely think he definitely has a shot to do that based on his speed. I think he's just going to continue to grow. We're very excited about him."
Now, the specific way in which Quinn answered could be taken to mean Atlanta views Sheffield as its starting nickel corner, which has become a starting position for a lot of teams given the number of snaps a defense is in nickel. Sheffield's speed is apparent on the field, and he plays with a high level of confidence. It's certainly possible that the Falcons give him a look as the other outside corner opposite Terrell and shift him inside in nickel packages, but that would be asking a lot of a young player. How they handle him in camp will give us a clue into what they have in mind.
3. Can Isaiah Oliver put together a full season?
Oliver has all of the tools to succeed in the NFL, but he's yet to consistently play to that level in his first two seasons. After coming on strong at the end of his rookie season, allowing six completions on 11 targets and snagging his first career interception in the final four games, the former second-round pick had a tough start to the 2019 season. Prior to the bye week, Oliver allowed 36 catches, a 69.2-percent completion rate, for 545 yards and five touchdowns.
As was the case with his first year, Oliver got better down the stretch. He allowed a 63-percent completion rate when targeted after the bye week, surrendering just 29 catches for 363 yards and giving up no touchdowns. Oliver has shown flashes of becoming the player the Falcons thought he could be, and his size is an important tool Atlanta wants to use against some of the bigger receivers in the division.
We just need to see Oliver sustain the level of play he's shown in spurts.
4. Blidi Wreh-Wilson is the lone veteran depth piece
It won't be surprising if Wreh-Wilson soon moves into the "fan-favorite zone." He's certainly not the flashiest player on Atlanta's roster, but the 30-year-old is entering his fifth season with the Falcons and has been extremely reliable during that time. Wreh-Wilson saw meaningful playing time on defense in just seven games last season – making two starts – but he finished the year with seven pass defenses, tied with Desmond Trufant for second-most among Falcons corners. His presence is important in 2020, because he'll likely be the first man off the bench in case of injury, and he's the only corner on the roster with more than three years of experience.
To that end, the Falcons have a number of young players to keep an eye on. Jordan Miller will be suspended for the first three games of the season; he was drafted alongside Sheffield in 2019 but failed to make a mark in his first year. Delrick Abram, Rojesterman Farris and Tyler Hall are three college free agents, and they figure to battle each other in camp for spots on the roster or practice squad.
Given this last bullet point, it wouldn't be too surprising to see the Falcons pursue a veteran corner at the right price later in the summer, although that is pure speculation.