Editor's note: This is the sixth story in a 10-part series counting down the top 10 Atlanta Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.
There's an old saying in sports and it goes something like, "You can't coach speed, but you can coach the talent."
That said, let's talk about Falcons second-year cornerback Kendall Sheffield.
When the Falcons selected the 6-foot, 193-pound Sheffield in the fourth round (No. 111 overall) of the 2019 NFL Draft, they knew he was relatively raw on experience – he only had two years of playing experience while at Ohio State – but very, very fast. Sheffield possesses elite speed. While at Ohio State, he set a school record with a 6.6-second 60-yard dash in 2018. That's scorching fast (even his "Madden NFL 21" ratings reflect it).
In short, Sheffield was one of those "speed-size guys" coming out. He has the long speed to stay with just about any receiver but would have a lot to learn when it comes to positioning and technique.
And in 2019, Sheffield more than held his own during his rookie season.
TOP 10 BREAKOUT SEASON COUNTDOWN
Body of work
The Falcons wasted little time before throwing Sheffield into the mix. While the defense took plenty of lumps in 2019, particularly during a 1-7 stretch to start the season, Sheffield eventually proved to be one of the brighter spots.
Following the departure of veterans Robert Alford and Brian Poole after the 2018 season, the Falcons initially opted to move Damontae Kazee from safety back inside to play in the slot. That plan was scrapped when safety Keanu Neal was lost for the season with an Achilles injury and Kazee was moved back to safety.
The Falcons quickly turned to Sheffield to pick up the slack inside and, as expected, there were some good and some not-so-good moments.
Sheffield, who played in 16 games, ended up starting 11 for the Falcons. He made 46 combined tackles, had three passes defensed, forced one fumble but allowed a completion percentage of 74.5 percent (55 targets, 41 completions).
"We played him a lot in the slot when we were playing in nickel defenses," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "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."
Poised for a breakout
Sheffield enters the 2020 season with loads of natural talent – size, speed and confidence – and, now, 11 starts under his belt. There's a lot of different recipes for success in the NFL, but those are some pretty good ingredients.
Quinn constantly talks about how a player's biggest leap forward usually takes place between their first and second years in the league. Sheffield appears poised to make such a leap.
While the Falcons have invested draft capital in the secondary, they are thin on experience. Atlanta drafted cornerback A.J. Terrell with the No. 16 pick in April's draft. While the former Clemson star has yet to play a meaningful snap in the NFL, he will be expected to hold down one of the starting corner spots. The opposite spot will likely go to third-year man Isaiah Oliver, another top 10 breakout player candidate in 2020, who started all 16 games last season.
While Sheffield, could challenge for one of the starting cornerback spots, he will likely have the inside track to be the starting nickel cornerback. When Quinn was asked if Sheffield could be a "No. 1 corner for the Falcons" back in April, the Falcons head coach appeared very optimistic.
"I definitely think he definitely has a shot to do that based on his speed," Quinn said. "I think he's just going to continue to grow. We're very excited about him."
We are counting down the top 10 Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.