As A.J. Terrell made his way through the crowd of fans in the Delta Sky360 Club at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after the Falcons open practice last week, he was surrounded by adults and kids alike just hopeful for a glimpse of him. Sitting down for a quick interview for the Falcons Final Whistle podcast, Terrell addressed the crowd with an easy smile and calm demeanor. After the interview he popped off the stage and immediately went to the crowd, signing autographs and jerseys while taking selfie after selfie before heading back to the field.
Two weeks before this day, Terrell was at a promotional shoot for the Falcons' throwback red helmet reveal.
This offseason he's thrown out the first pitch at a Braves game and been the Golden Spike hitter at an Atlanta United game.
He's been everywhere, doing everything he can to make his presence felt in Atlanta, the city he grew up in. And after two seasons with the Falcons, Terrell has been transformed from an unwanted draft pick to the face of the franchise.
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When Terrell was drafted as the No. 16 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the loudest contingency of the fan base didn't like the pick... at all. Fast forward to 2022 and no one would argue that this particular pick was anything but successful, with Diante Lee of The Athletic recently listing Terrell and Chase Young as the only "hits" of the 2020 defensive draft class.
Asked about the journey of the last two years, Terrell said even in the changes of the organization in that short amount of time, he's always tried to keep to himself and his own work.
"I came in holding myself responsible," Terrell noted. "As guys come in and come out (of the building), my role becomes bigger. I have more experience under my belt, and I'm just feeding it into the younger guys."
And not just experience, but production, too. Terrell finished last season with an 85.6 coverage grade, per PFF. More so, he was only targeted 66 times in 2021, giving up just 29 receptions for an average of 6.9 yards a catch. He was - in a word - superb. So, as a result, every appearance made this offseason has been a byproduct of all of this, and that's according to Terrell, himself.
"All of that stuff is sweet, but it comes from hard work, trust in the guys, guys trusting in me," Terrell said. "Putting in (work) over time and having fun with it."
Now, Terrell said this season is about growing into the role of a figurehead and - more importantly - a leader.
Terrell has never been one for words. He lets his play do the talking. He leads by example, not by lengthy speeches or dramatic language. A broken up pass means just as much in his mind. However, Terrell said a goal of this season is to become a more vocal leader.
Talking to 11Alive's Maria Martin, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he wants to see Terrell step into that vocal role in 2022, having him lead a recent meeting, too. Terrell said it's a skill he's excited about adding to his tool box, noting it's not something that is uncomfortable for him.
Asked about going up against Terrell every day at practice, new quarterback Marcus Mariota's eyes grew wide.
"Ahh! It's tough. I hate going against him every day," Mariota said with a laugh before sobering. "To get work with someone I think is one of the better corners in the league is great. We look forward to that challenge every day. We know going against him is going to make us all better."
Terrell is heading into another important year for not just himself, but the organization at large going through a year of change. But even surrounded by crowds (both on an off the field), Terrell said he's going to keep the same mindset going into 2022 as he's always had before. Just because the notoriety changes, doesn't mean Terrell does.
"I'm really just focusing on me. As I am focusing on me, things take care of themselves," Terrell said. "So, why not look at it that way? Just holding myself accountable and keeping it that way is what I am supposed to do."
It's worked for him so far.
Take a look at cornerback A.J. Terrell sporting the classic red helmet originally worn by the Atlanta Falcons in 1966.