Editor's note: Our weeklong Falcons Building Blocks series started Tuesday and focuses on five young talents who will be counted on to start a new era of sustained success. These players must hit certain marks to be included. They must be working on a rookie contract. They must be 27 or younger. They must be thriving already, with leadership qualities and potential for even better down the line. While rookies aren't preferred considering they've never played an NFL snap at this point, you'll find one on the list due to vast potential involved. The latest installment focuses on cornerback A.J. Terrell.
The Falcons finished dead last in pass defense last season. That doesn't mean every aspect of it was poor. There were some reasons for optimism within the secondary, especially on the outside.
A.J. Terrell was the biggest. He showed great promise as a rookie and made the Falcons look smart for taking him No. 16 overall in last year's NFL Draft. The Clemson product performed well despite losing a true offseason program to the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant accomplishment in itself considering how vital those workouts are to rookie development and a player's transition to the NFL.
Terrell was a willing and capable run defender, unafraid to mix it up and man his position well. While some games went better than others – such is life for rookie cornerbacks – Terrell was solid in coverage. He allowed 71 receptions for 901 yards and five touchdowns on 102 targets, per analytics site Pro Football Focus, and had an interception. His first NFL pick came in Week 6 against Minnesota, a game where he also had seven tackles, including a few big plays in run defense, against the Vikings while showing flashes of his true potential.
There was more than one example of his quality, creating a buzz around the high draft pick that has carried into 2021. Terrell seems like a lock while the Falcons secondary enters a period of transition. Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are both gone after years in the defensive backfield, replaced by veterans Duron Harmon and Erik Harris on one-year contracts. Fabian Moreau is also a short-term solution at this stage, working on a one-year deal.
While it's possible several key spots are filled by new talent down the line, there's confidence that Terrell's a player to build around. The Falcons hope 2021 draft picks Richie Grant and Darren Hall can find their way and that Jaylinn Hawkins can establish himself in his second season. That would help this pass defense improve as the franchise tries to find the right mix on the back end.
All that's up in the air at this point. We know, however, that Terrell can play. Working through a full offseason program this spring and summer should help immensely, especially as he adjusts to Dean Pees' new defensive scheme. Sustained health will also help, especially after a hamstring injury hampered him some in 2020. He's ideally sized at 6-foot, 190 pounds, using his frame well in coverage and to make plays on the ball. He also has big-game experience from his time at Clemson, and isn't fazed by the top-tier receivers he's regularly facing in the pros.
Getting an early return on this investment has been important as the Falcons plot a course to upgrade the secondary and form a feared unit. They can spend resources shoring up other spots knowing they have a good outside cornerback already in place. That's a big development in itself, especially with Terrell under a rookie contract another four years if they exercise his fifth-year option down the road.
Terrell isn't a perfect cornerback at this stage – who is after one NFL season? -- but could be a real threat and an upper-level cornerback if he continues to progress through technical refinement and invaluable NFL experience. Getting others up to his par should form a solid secondary that will help the Falcons navigate often choppy waters in a pass-happy league.