'Love A.J.': Atlanta Falcons GM Terry Fontenot Talks CB Terrell Contract Extension

Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot has often said he won't negotiate with the media and said as such Tuesday, but he remains full of praise for cornerback A.J. Terrell, who's entering the last year of his contract.
Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions
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When Terry Fontenot first walked into the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters in Flowery Branch on Jan. 21, 2021, he was greeted by the usual welcoming committee - his then-new head coach Arthur Smith, owner Arthur Blank and other organizational higher-ups.

But he also saw cornerback A.J. Terrell, less than two weeks removed from putting a bow on an All-Pro season in just his second professional campaign.

Throughout Fontenot's first several weeks on the job, he frequently saw Terrell in the building. Now entering his fifth season, Terrell is still the same way - an easy-to-find, reliably present individual.

Atlanta has a decision to make on Terrell, who's entering the last year of his contract and is currently set to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. But Fontenot, if nothing else, is a fan of everything Terrell embodies.

"The worker, the consummate pro that he is, that's what you get excited about," Fontenot said Tuesday at the league owners meetings. "But the mindset that he has, the way that he works, he's just a consummate pro. And that's important. Again, it's a premiere position. Like we talked about pass rushers, cover corner is a premiere position.

"But love everything about A.J."

Fontenot, a defensive back at Tulane University from 1999-2002, knows all about the challenges of playing cornerback.

He called it one of the hardest positions in the league - everybody else does things moving forward while knowing where they're going. Corners, conversely, are backpedaling without certainty of where the receiver is heading.

The 25-year-old Terrell, drafted No. 16 overall in 2020, was thrown into the fire as a rookie and has been Atlanta's top cornerback ever since.

He's started all 61 games in which he's played since entering the league, missing only five contests. This past season, he started all 17 games, logging 45 tackles, four tackles for loss and 11 passes defended.

In terms of defensive staples, Terrell is quickly emerging as one. He was a team captain in 2022. He routinely draws opponents' top receivers.

New Falcons head coach Raheem Morris has a unique perspective on Terrell's development. Morris was Atlanta's defensive coordinator and, later, interim head coach in 2020 and played an integral part in drafting Terrell.

But Morris spent the following three seasons as the Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator, playing Terrell just once - Week 2, 2022.

Upon returning to Atlanta for his second full-time head coaching stint, Morris turned on the film and saw his once-new protege morph into Atlanta's premiere cover corner.

And on a team full of youthful cornerbacks, the conversation always starts with Terrell.

"You can talk about some of the young faces, but I don't know how you consider A.J. Terrell," Morris told SI's Falcon Report on Tuesday at league meetings. "Seeing him as a young face, being here when we drafted him was really awesome for me, and then watching what he's developed into."

Terrell will have a few new faces teaching him this season, starting with defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake and secondary coach Justin Hood.

But Morris is back, as is assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray, a former Pro Bowl defensive back who has a heavy presence within the Falcons' secondary room.

Gray worked extensively with Terrell last season, working to get his mind and expectations in the right place for a man coverage-focused cornerback.

But Gray wants Terrell to understand that's part of playing man coverage. His job is more to break up passes, and if interceptions come, they come.

"When I put you on the best guy, guess what? I expect for you to win on the best guy," Gray said during the season. "And if the ball comes your way, knock the ball down. If you get an interception, that’s a plus. A lot of guys want to get an interception, then you misjudge the ball and all of a sudden, they catch the ball on you.

"So, it’s little things like that, that you try to talk to him about."

For the most part, Gray feels Terrell succeeded at beating other teams' best guy. Still, the 6-1, 195-pound Terrell is young with room to grow.

The ball will come his way more often when facing No. 1 wideouts, something he saw extensively this season after primarily playing solely on the left side of the field earlier in his career.

There were ups and downs in Terrell's first season as a more frequent shadow. He allowed 45 receptions and quarterbacks completed only 55.6 percent of their targets in his direction - but he gave up 552 yards and four touchdowns, according to Pro Football Reference.

Still, Gray, in his first season in Atlanta, believes Terrell took a step forward and is poised for another in 2024.

"Good cover corner," Gray said. "Understands what he’s doing. We’ve matched him up on a lot of the top receivers this year. How can he hang? What are you doing with those guys? That’s the biggest thing. He is in that class. I think he’s ready to take that next step."

Now, the question becomes value.

Atlanta likes Terrell, who's a quality starting cornerback - but how much should it pay him? Better yet, will it?

The Falcons have a decision to make. Fontenot, never one to negotiate with the media, left few clues at the owners meetings as to the depths of Atlanta's discussions with Terrell.

"We'll never get into those private conversations," Fontenot said. "Those are things that we'll talk specifically with him and his agent about, and at the appropriate time, make everyone aware of it. But again, love AJ and everything he's about."

For now, Terrell's long-term future in Atlanta is uncertain - but Morris, Fontenot and Gray are all fond of him, and there appears to be internal optimism about the two sides working together beyond 2024.

Daniel Flick


Daniel Flick is an accredited NFL writer for Sports Illustrated's FanNation. Daniel has provided boots-on-ground coverage at the NFL Combine and from the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters, among other destinations, and contributed to the annual Lindy's Sports Magazine ahead of the 2023 offseason. Daniel is a co-host on the 404TheFalcon podcast and previously wrote for the Around the Block Network and Georgia Sports Hospitality Media.