At the beginning of the offseason, one of my biggest concerns with the Falcons roster was the entire cornerback room. It wasn’t just about starters or depth; it was the entire depth chart, top to bottom. Fast forward to the present, and my optimism for this group has grown. It starts with A.J. Terrell, who is clearly an ascending talent. It seems like every single practice, the former Clemson Tiger is making at least one notable play; usually, it’s a handful. Arthur Smith has complimented his ability, but he’s not the only one; his teammates have also taken notice.
Russell Gage was asked what he sees that makes Terrell better in year two after Thursday’s practice. “Oh man, just attention to detail,” said Gage. “He does little things before practice, after practice; I can tell it translates over, I go against him in one on ones, his details are precise. He’s really good; he’s coming out of his breaks faster. He’s going to be special. From press to off, to anything, he works hard each and every week,” Gage said. “A.J. is one of those guys, he was great last year, you can tell he’s going to be even better. It’s broad, but that’s really what it is. His details on everything, you can kind of just feel it when you’re running routes against him.”
That isn’t necessarily the most flattering compliment given Gage has never been more than a third wide receiver on a depth chart until this season, but what about a 13-year, former league MVP quarterback? “It’s hard to say anything surprises you with him because he’s so talented,” Ryan said of the second-year corner. “Where I was most impressed with him last year was seeing how much better he was at the end of the year over the beginning. There was a constant evolution, and it still hasn’t stopped. That wasn’t surprising, but it’s the most encouraging thing I’ve seen. That growth hasn’t plateaued. He keeps getting a little bit better every day. His pattern recognition is excellent. I have been around some good ones…guys that really did a great job on pattern reading, and he’s very good at that. He’s good at individual matchups, one-on-ones. We see that every day.”
The Falcons have found their future at the position in Terrell, but there were clear question marks opposite of him and behind him. Terry Fontenot went out and signed Fabian Moreau, who I had penciled in to start opposite Terrell the moment the acquisition was announced — unless, of course, the team took a corner high in the draft. There is a difference in the disposition of who will start opposite Terrell between the local and national media.
Moreau has taken nearly all of the reps with the first-team defense, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Falcons’ Vice President of Player Personnel Kyle Smith was the Director of College Personnel when the Washington Football Team drafted Moreau out of UCLA in 2017. Given Terrell’s ascension, he can expect to see a heavy share of the targets, but I believe he’ll have an unexpectedly impressive year.
With Moreau and Terrell on the boundary, the nickel position is still up for grabs. I believe Richie Grant will be the first defensive back off the bench in most situations, but there will be points in games where Dean Pees will need a cornerback. Isaiah Oliver clearly improved his play once he was moved inside by Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris after Dan Quinn was fired. He’s much better suited as a nickel back than a true boundary corner, which is perfectly fine, because the league — especially this defense — needs that slot/nickel back. I foresee Grant taking over one of Erik Harris or Duron Harmon‘s starting roles, so Oliver could see his playing time increase if a situation like that occurs.
Even still, the depth has improved. Fontenot drafted Darren Hall in the fourth round of April’s draft, who is someone I could see becoming a two-position starter for this defense in the future. During his freshman year, he played safety but transitioned to corner the following season. Hall has only a fraction of the experience that Grant has, but his instincts and quick feet give me confidence in that projection. His ball skills are top-notch, and on a recent episode of Talkin’ Birdy, Scott Bair noted Darren Hall had been all over the field.
Chris Williamson is another name to watch out for behind Hall; he has been impressive throughout training camp and is someone I could see edging out a roster spot. Arthur Smith said unprompted during a press conference that Williamson “keeps showing up.” Behind him, things look much bleaker. Kendall Sheffield has been injured for part of camp, which can’t help his standing with the new regime, and Avery Williams was primarily drafted for his dynamic punt and kick return ability.
If the Falcons were in a bind and had to play either of these guys, I don’t know how well the defense would fare. However, I don’t see every single snap, and I am not inside of the meeting rooms; the staff could see it completely differently. I still have confidence in the group surprising people barring any major injuries.
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