A former standout at Clemson that has progressed into the diamond of a deep 2020 class of cornerback talent, Atlanta Falcons corner A.J. Terrell is the best defensive back in football you probably have heard little about. Unlike any of his first-round comrades that have failed to live up to day-one expectations thus far, Terrell has enjoyed an outstanding start to his NFL tenure.
A finisher among the top 10 in tackles among all first-year defenders last fall, Terrell’s ceiling as a pro has only risen since he arrived. In just his sophomore season as the Falcons’ top apex stalwart, Terrell’s skill set has been one of the most overlooked and underappreciated in the entire league. Whether it's due to his role on a Falcons team that offers little national headliners outside of Kyle Pitts, or because you fail to hear his name throughout a broadcast—for good reason—Terrell has quickly progressed into one of the league’s top secondary defenders.
Dominant in man-to-man coverage where he uses his 6-foot-1 frame and long arms to swallow opposing wideouts, Terrell has a high level of field awareness and understands how to use the sideline as an extra defender when left alone on an island. And when in zone, Terrell’s aggressiveness and high-level football IQ allow him to consistently work downhill toward opposing receivers who look to break off routes in what looks to be open space. Even when it seems that a catch is possible, he competes through the arms of matchups.
An alpha at the catch point similar to the league’s elite offensive weapons, Terrell has a knack of playing through the hands of targets, recording the sixth-most passes defensed (14) in all of football as we enter the final two games of the season. A smooth, almost silky athlete in space, his length has wreaked havoc for opposing quarterbacks that dare to target him this fall, and his presence alone has shut down 50% of the field for opposing offenses to counter.
The highest-graded corner in football and on pace to allow the fewest yards per coverage snap in 15 seasons, Terrell operates at his own pace, almost baiting quarterbacks to throw his way.
A veteran play against rookie signal-caller Mac Jones, this is like taking candy from a baby.
Initially lined up eight yards off N’Keal Harry at the snap, this play exemplifies just how special a talent Terrell is when asked to work in space. While Jones makes a nice play fitting the ball over the leaping second-level linebacker, Terrell’s ability to T-step and close toward the middle of the field, despite Harry working on an out-route toward the sideline, is just a phenomenal play on the football from Terrell, who’s allowed just 324 yards as the primary defender in coverage all season long.
A defender with a closing speed matched by few and exploding burst through opposing offensive players when tasked to break up passes or attack with intelligent violence in the run, the “should have been” CB1 in the 2020 class is just scratching the surface of his All-World ability.
The anchor of a Falcons defense lacking pop at all three levels as the tandem of general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith get their feet wet, he’ll be asked to do even more in the coming seasons as Atlanta looks to maneuver its way past a full-blown rebuild, remaining competitive in a top-heavy NFC South.
While the names of Trevon Diggs and Jalen Ramsey have often dominated secondary conversations this fall, it’s been Terrell whose game deserves much more of a share of the spotlight as one of the NFL’s premier shutdown defenders.