Falcons’ A.J. Terrell among ‘Pro Bowlers to Superstars’ tier of ESPN’s breakout players

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The Falcons feature several elite players at their respective positions, and A.J. Terrell is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, even after taking a step back in 2022 from his All-Pro campaign in 2021. However, Bill Barnwell of ESPN included him in his breakout candidates for 2023.

I have done my own series on Falcons breakout candidates, which includes players such as Ta’Quon Graham, Richie Grant, Arnold Ebiketie, Troy Andersen, Drew Dalman, Drake London, Jeff Okudah, and Kaden Elliss, among others. Those are very different players, though. That’s because there are different levels of breakouts.

Some are establishing themselves as stars, others just as regular contributors. That’s exactly what Barnwell did, which I think is how more people should approach breakout articles. Terrell was among Trevor Lawrence and Penei Sewell in the ‘Pro Bowlers to Superstars’ tier.

To close observers, Terrell already had his breakout season in 2021. The 2020 first-round pick looked spectacular on tape and by the numbers, as he allowed a passer rating of just 61.0 in coverage, per Pro Football Reference, despite playing behind the league’s worst pass rush. I was convinced by what I saw and named him a first-team All-Pro on my year-end list, placing him ahead of stars Jalen Ramsey and Marshon Lattimore.

Terrell wasn’t bad in 2022, but the results weren’t the same. He gave up two touchdown passes in the Week 1 opener to Saints receiver Michael Thomas and finished the season allowing six scores, which doubled his total from the prior season. Opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating just north of 102 against him, up by more than 40 points. There wasn’t much of a pass rush again from the Falcons, but Terrell slipped by his own lofty standards.

Barnwell is correct in his analysis of Terrell’s play. His production and impact fell in 2022 from his 2021 campaign, which I predicted before last season. Moreover, Barnwell’s estimation of his supporting cast is also accurate. The Falcons defense featured a bunch of nobodies, with one of the worst pass rushes in the league, putting extra strain on the secondary. However, that should change this year, which Barnwell notes.

Finally, though, he is getting help. The Falcons brought in as many as seven new starters on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, including star safety and former Bengals standout Jessie Bates III. Calais Campbell and David Onyemata should help up front, while Kaden Elliss surprised as a pass-rusher for the Saints last season. If Terrell and Grady Jarrett don’t have to put the defense solely on their backs in 2023, it might unlock a new level from the fourth-year pro. I wouldn’t be surprised if Terrell were the best cornerback in the NFC in 2023.

A corner’s best friend is a pass rush. The Falcons’ star corner’s play should positively regress back to the 2021 level with a competent defensive front pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Moreover, Jessie Bates’ presence will benefit Terrell’s effectiveness. A.J. Terrell will re-establish himself among the league’s best.

Photographer: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

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