For this Falcons defense to succeed, A.J. Terrell will need to have a breakout year

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Some draft pundits called the selection a reach when the Falcons selected Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell with the 16th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Terrell was arguably the best rookie cornerback in the NFL this past season and the most reliable corner for the Falcons in 2020. However, for the Falcons defense to have any taste of success in 2021 under Dean Pees, Terrell will have to take a sizeable sophomore leap establishing himself as a premier corner in this league, and he’s excited to learn under Pees.

“Dean Pees is a well experienced coach,” Terrell said about his new defensive coordinator. “Definitely look forward to this season with him and all of the things he is going to bring to the defense and to the team. I really like where we are at so far… just can’t wait to learn more.

“I feel like this defense gives us a variety of things we can do,” the second-year corner said. “Just very multiple, everyone is hands on and active in the defense.”

In PFF’s 2021 secondary rankings, the Falcons came in ranked 32nd — dead last. It isn’t a secret the Falcons defense — especially the secondary — experienced major personnel turnover, which is why Ben Linsey placed Atlanta where he did.

Four safeties played at least 200 snaps for the Falcons last season — Keanu NealRicardo AllenSharrod Neasmann and Damontae Kazee. None of them are still with Atlanta. Veteran free agents Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, along with recent draft selections Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant, will form a new-look safety unit in 2021.

The Falcons will need better play out of their young cornerbacks, as well. None of A.J. TerrellIsaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield have recorded a coverage grade higher than 60.0 in the past two seasons.

He’s not wrong, and though I believe Richie Grant will become a game-wrecking safety, he’s still a rookie. Terrell is the most critical piece of this secondary overachieving in its first year under the new regime. He has all the makings for a high-level corner in this league, showing well as a rookie and victim of some incredible catches up against the best the NFL has to offer, but he was rarely out of position and never lost confidence. Terrell has all the ingredients to ascend and become a true lockdown corner continually.

The Falcons’ defense doesn’t necessarily hinge on Terrell’s production in 2021, but his improved play will provide Pees greater flexibility when attacking opposing offenses. If Atlanta doesn’t get much improvement from Terrell, this defense could be in for a long season.

Photographer: David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire
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