The Falcons didn’t make a blockbuster trade in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft after all. Neither did any other team. The NFL’s first virtual draft on Thursday went pretty much to form before the Falcons selected Clemson junior cornerback A.J. Terrell with the No. 16 pick.
There’s no way to know now whether Terrell will be the No. 1 cornerback the Falcons need. Higher-rated cornerbacks were available when they picked, but those are subjective projections. There’s no shame in Terrell giving up big plays to LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase in the last national championship game because Chase could be the first receiver picked in the 2021 draft.
We’ll see how Terrell turns out as a pro. But I think the Falcons already won by what they didn’t do.
There was gossip about general manager Thomas Dimitroff trading for a pick near the top of the draft. A deal that resulted in fewer picks would not have been in the long-term interest of the Falcons who, if anything, need more draft picks to fill their many holes. The Falcons decided to stay at No. 16 and fill one of those holes with Terrell.
“We hung tough and we entertained other opportunities to potentially move up,” Dimitroff said during a media conference call. “But this is where we wanted to be. This is a guy we targeted from the start of our draft preparation.”
Dimitroff said the Falcons never made a “concrete” trade offer. He said they were concerned the Raiders might take a cornerback with the No. 12 pick. Once Oakland took Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III “that allowed us to take a deep breath and hold tight.”
The Falcons got Terrell while keeping their other five draft picks. They have one each in the second and third rounds, two in the fourth and one in the seventh. Trading those picks to move up in the first round would have meant lost opportunities to add more talent and depth.
The Falcons need Terrell to be good as a rookie. He’s projected to start opposite Isaiah Oliver, who took his lumps as a first-year starter in 2019. Coach Dan Quinn said before the draft that Kendall Sheffield could be a No. 1 cornerback, but that would require a big improvement in Year 2. The other three cornerbacks on the depth chart aren’t starter quality.
Quinn said Terrell is a good fit for the “Cover 3” defense the Falcons favor.
“I think it’s the speed and the length,” Quinn said. “When you play outside at corner you want to be able to control the receiver vertically down the field.”
The Falcons would be in trouble with Oliver, Sheffield and Blidi Wreh-Wilson as their top three cornerbacks in 2020. They were part of a shaky secondary in 2019 that no longer has No.1 cornerback Desmond Trufant. Drew Brees is back for another year in New Orleans and the Bucs added Tom Brady.
The Falcons need to cover better in 2020. Adding Terrell gives them a better chance to do it. He was a coveted recruit out of Westlake High in 2017 and became a star for Clemson by his sophomore season. Terrell finished that year with a pick-six in the national title game against Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was drafted fifth overall by the Dolphins on Thursday.
Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris and assistants Joe Whitt Jr. and Doug Mallory will need to get Terrell ready fast. That might be tough with COVID-19 disrupting offseason programs, but every NFL team will have the same challenge with their rookies.
The Falcons could have gotten a more coveted prospect by moving up in the draft. Fox’s Jay Glazer reported that they tried to pry the No. 2 pick away from Washington so they could take Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young. Four other defensive prospects were top-10 picks: Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, Auburn tackle Derrick Brown, Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons and Florida cornerback CJ Henderson.
Dimitroff said the Falcons were set on taking a cornerback. They weren’t going to get Okudah without trading up. He went to the Lions with the No. 3 pick. Asked about Henderson, who was picked No. 9 by Jacksonville, Dimitroff said: “We were focused on A.J. Terrell.
Dimitroff didn’t go all-in like he did for Julio Jones in the 2011 draft. He surrendered the No. 27 overall pick, a second-round pick, and a fourth in that draft plus first- and fourth-round picks the next year. It was a bold move that came after Cincinnati picked wide receiver A.J. Green fourth.
Dimitroff needed a top wide receiver prospect for quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones was the only one left on the board after Green. Jones is headed to the Hall of Fame. But the picks he cost the Falcons made it harder for them to build their defense. They won one playoff game over his first five seasons.
That’s the biggest draft trade Dimitroff has made in 13 seasons as general manager. He’s swung deals in the first round four other times. Dimitroff hit once (Trufant in 2013) and struck out twice (Sam Baker in 2008 and Takk McKinley in 2017). The jury is out on right tackle Kaleb McGary, who was shaky as a rookie in 2019 after Dimitroff surrendered second- and third-round picks to take him No. 31 overall.
Eventually we’ll find out if Terrell is the right pick for the Falcons.
“We feel very good about the opportunity to get him at (No.) 16, honestly, and not have to move up and use picks to get a position of need,” Dimitroff said.
That’s probably the right call under the circumstances.
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