FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When people talk about the Falcons 2020 season, there's a specific list of moments they refer back to:
The 0-5 start. The organization parting ways with Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff. The interim situation with Raheem Morris. The coaching search. The GM search. The hiring of Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot. The restructuring of Matt Ryan's contract. Drafting Kyle Pitts with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft. Trading Julio Jones to the Titans.
That's it. But here's a list of moments they do not usually refer back to:
The emergence of A.J. Terrell.
Because of all of the reasons listed above, Terrell's stellar rookie season flew under the radar. Once the Jones trade talk started, it might as well have buried itself under ground. It was a rookie year that saw Terrell take over at one of the starting cornerback position early in camp. By the end of the season, he had started 14 games for the Falcons and finished the year with one interception and three forced fumbles. He became the first rookie corner in franchise history to do so.
Looking back, the Falcons decision to draft Terrell out of Clemson with their first round pick in the 2020 Draft was a decision met with questions from the fan base. There was a very loud contingency that saw the pick as a waste, a flop. Terrell was quick to quiet those who were vocal about not wanting him in Atlanta, and he did so not with his words but with his actions.
And truly, that's really the crux of who Terrell is. Never one to be overly vocal. He lets his play speak for itself. And so far in 2021, the sheer volume of his play is screaming at the league to be noticed, even when he would never say he wants to be.
"I'm real good at tuning things out," Terrell said.
But let's break down the numbers, shall we?
At this point in the 2021 season, Terrell's stat line is as solid as any corner in the league. He has an overall defensive PFF grade of 81.5. He has been targeted 28 times (yes, a mere 28 times, you read that right). He's given up just 13 receptions for a total of 74 yards, which means receivers are averaging less than six yards a catch against him. If his rookie year was stellar for a first-year cornerback in this league, his second year is... well... you can pick any word you like.
"He's been solid," Arthur Smith said of Terrell. "He makes an impact on every game when he's out there."
And for a cornerback in this league, the most impactful you can be is when quarterbacks are actively choosing not to throw your way. And in 2021, opposing quarterbacks are acutely aware of Terrell's presence. So much so, they're making a conscious choice to throw opposite Terrell.
It's something Terrell himself is acutely aware of, too.
He even went as far as to say so in-game on Sunday against the Saints, noting how he really wanted an interception. Mic'd up for the Falcons on the sideline, he was quickly reminded that it's difficult to do that when the ball isn't being thrown his way.
"Not getting targeted is good. I know I am doing something good, something right," Terrell said. "... Not being targeted and not having opportunities to make plays is a win for a corner, for a DB. That's just how I look at it."
Terrell - as a player - is more instinctual than he is a planner. He's organized. He's takes notes, of course. But Terrell believes he's at his best when he's acting on instinct.
"I don't like going into the week thinking too much," Terrell said. "I try to keep my head simple, and just being able to go play. When you're thinking too much, you play slow. I like to anticipate and trust my ability to go make plays."
His instincts take him far, but so does his in-game evolution. An overlooked part of Terrell's game is how he gets better as the game goes on. As a cornerback, there are only so many things film can teach you. It can show you concepts of a defense, the stance of a receiver and what it means, or patterns in route variations. But it doesn't show you the in-game adjustments you have to make, nor does it prepare you for the 50/50 balls that will inevitably be tossed your way.
"Coming in the first series of the game, I'm anticipating what I'm gonna get," Terrell said, "but then throughout the game you start to get more comfortable on the feel. You feel out receivers, certain formations, anything like that."
There's a certain self-assurance Terrell said a corner at the professional level has to play with. It doesn't matter who you're lining up against, the mentality has to be the same. You can't be mentally defeated out of the gate, Terrell said.
So, how does this confidence-in-self display itself in Terrell? He makes it a point to have it show up as every snap happens.
"I'm thinking pass every play," Terrell said. "I'm not thinking run. I am out there to guard a receiver. So, I am thinking pass before run. My job is pass first so just being able to go out there each snap and not get complacent and take care of my side and my business is what I'm here to do."
Terrell has become one of the most exciting corners in the league in 2021. And with the back half of the season to come, the only question that remains is just when that first pick will come.
But that's if - and only if - quarterbacks are willing to throw his way, and so far, they haven't been in 2021.
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