The 2020 season will be one Atlanta Falcons fans will hope to forget on defense — primarily in the secondary. Amplifying its 4-12 record, Atlanta finished dead last in pass defense, allowing opponents to average 293.6 yards per game.
Falcons' new defensive coordinator Dean Pees has his hands full this fall, but he does have the makings of a true No. 1 cornerback. Far from perfect, former first-round pick A.J. Terrell was the bright spot on the unit.
Can he make the leap to Pro Bowl-caliber defender in Year 2?
When selected No. 16 overall from Clemson, the expectations were high for Terrell to replace Desmond Trufant. But rookie cornerbacks usually struggle in the first season transitioning from college wide receivers to Pro Bowl talents lining up each week.
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Terrell was no exception.
According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 71 receptions for 901 yards and five touchdowns on 102 targets. He did thrive as a run stopper, unafraid to take on runners on the edge and use his body to make the play.
In his second season, things have already changed. Last year's defensive coordinatory, Raheem Morris, was not retained by new head coach Arthur Smith. Neither were co-secondary members Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen or Damontae Kazee. Instead, Atlanta will rely on new safeties Erik Harris and Duron Harmon. Fellow defensive back Fabian Moreau will fight for reps at both the outside and nickel corner role.
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Albeit new for Terrell, the scheme fit might actually play well in his favor. Under Pees, the Falcons are expected to run more of a zone-based secondary. Under former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Terrell played in a similar concept.
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Another helpful aspect will be the offseason. Last fall, teams couldn't go through a full offseason plan due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rookies were thrust into training camp without any extra reps.
This year, Terrell already has seen action in OTAs and in minicamp. Both weeks have given the second-year defensive back more reps than he saw all last August in camp under then-coach Dan Quinn.
Atlanta's biggest need entering the season could be a true No. 1 cornerback. Terrell has the size (6-foot, 190 pounds) to fit Pees' model.
Far from a finished product, Terrell still has room to grow in both coverage and during pre snap. The NFL continues to transition to a pass-first style, leading to every team looking for a bonafide cover man that can lead its secondary to success.
As the season approaches, Terrell might benefit from the changes made by the front office. If so, Atlanta could could reap the benefit of drafting Terrell to be its top cover corner.
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