Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: The secondary

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Editor’s note: This is the third of an eight-part position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before they report for training camp. The rookies report July 19 and the veterans July 26.

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell established himself as an emerging star in the NFL last season.

Terrell will help anchor a revamped secondary that gave up 232.5 yards passing per game last season, which ranked 18th in the league. Cornerback Casey Hayward, free safety Jaylinn Hawkins and strong safety Richie Grant are projected starters after the team parted ways with Duron Harmon and Fabian Moreau, who both played more than 1,000 defensive snaps last season.

Hawkins split time with Erik Harris last season. Hayward was signed in free agency, and Grant played mostly at nickel back as a rookie while learning the nuances of playing safety in the NFL.

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“That’s the beauty of just sports,” Terrell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently at Hayward’s summer camp. “There is never the same team the next year. You’ve always got to rebuild, whether it is friendships or coaches, with everybody. That’s the part of (the offseason) where we are getting it all down and getting ready for camp and moving on into the season.”

Terrell thought the offseason went well.

“Just building the chemistry and all of that,” Terrell said. “Going into camp with everybody just being true to themselves, having fun doing their job, holding themselves accountable. It will all work out for itself.”

Terrell said he is not paying any attention to most of the projections for the Falcons, who are moving on from the Matt Ryan era. Most have the Falcons rated as the third or fourth team in the NFC South in the coming season.

“Just block that out,” Terrell said. “We can control what we can. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, so just block that out and focus in on what we’ve got going on, on and off the field.”

Terrell played 16 games last season and had a 50% completion rate when targeted (43 completions on 86 targets). Quarterbacks had a pitiful 61 passer rating when throwing his way. He had three interceptions and 81 tackles.

“He’s got really good movement skills,” secondary coach Jon Hoke said. “You can tell that he’s working at it.”

Assistant secondary coach Nick Perry said: “The thing about AJ is he’s always hungry. He’s always trying to get better at the basics. He always wants to improve in every capacity of the game. He wants to continue to get better to see how good he can be.”

Hayward, who’ll turn 33 in September, is a two-time Pro Bowl player. He started all 17 games for the Raiders last season.

“He’s obviously played a while,” Hoke said. “You can see that he knows football. He’s very instinctive. He’s been a positive influence in the (defensive backs meeting) room and with everybody.”

Hayward, who’s from Perry and played at Vanderbilt, has 109 pass breakups and 24 interceptions over his career.

“Anytime you add a vet like Casey Heyward, it helps out your defense, your entire team and leadership off the field, too,” Perry said.

The Falcons are hoping that Hawkins and Grant are ready to take over, and they like their depth at safety.

“Erik’s back to find a role,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Dean Marlowe (is a veteran). We signed a guy out of rookie camp, Tre Webb. We signed an undrafted guy in (Matt) Hankins. We’ve got good depth back there.”

Grant, who was drafted in the second round in 2021, is the biggest question mark in the secondary. He regularly spent time after practice with Harmon, who taught him about the position.

“He has taken a good step,” Hoke said. “It was good for him, the way he was played last year. ... He had two good older vets in Erik and Duron Harmon to watch and see what a pro football player looks like ... how he prepares, how he conducts himself on a day-to-day basis.”

Grant ended up playing some nickel back and on special teams as a rookie.

“Now, he’s focused on one spot,” Hoke said. “Last year, he was focused on two spots. It can be challenging.”

The Falcons are hoping for a full recovery from right knee surgery for Isaiah Oliver, who had found a home at nickel back.

“It’s a whole different (position) because you’re a safety, you’re a linebacker and you’re a corner,” Hoke said. “You have a lot of things to do and a lot of hats to wear at that position.”

Smith let Oliver do some modified individual work over the offseason.

“We’ve got to find somebody to play consistent in the nickel spot,” Smith said. “Darren Hall needs to continue to develop. I’m excited about some of these other guys that we brought in. I’m excited to see what (cornerback) Dee Alford could do. He’s a guy you need to keep your eyes on.”

Hoke shared his vision for the secondary.

“We want to be a tough and aggressive group,” Hoke said. “We going to need to eliminate big plays, but at the same time be able to create takeaways. We’ll see how the chemistry all fills out as we keep moving forward.”

- Staff writer John Riker contributed to this article.

Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:

Part 1: Defensive line

Part 2: Linebackers

Part 3: Secondary

Part 4: Special teams

Part 5: Wide receivers/ tight end

Part 6: Offensive line

Part 7: running backs

Part 8: Quarterback

The AJC’s projected depth chart

OFFENSE

WR – Bryan Edwards, Cordarrelle Patterson, Frank Darby, Cameron Batson, KhaDarel Hodge, Stanley Berryhill

TE – Kyle Pitts, Brayden Lenius, Tucker Fisk

LT – Jake Matthews, Rick Leonard, Tyler Vrabel, Leroy Watson

LG – Jalen Mayfield, Elijah Wilkinson, Colby Gossett, Justin Shaffer

C – Drew Dalman or Matt Hennessy, Jonotthan Harrison

RG – Chris Lindstrom, Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil

RT – Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi

TE – Anthony Firkser, Parker Hesse, John Raine, John FitzPatrick

WR – Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus, Geronimo Allison, Auden Tate, Damiere Byrd, Jared Bernhardt, Tyshaun James

RB – Cordarrelle Patterson, Damien Williams, Qadree Ollison, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams, Tyler Allgeier

FB – Keith Smith

QB – Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, Feleipe Franks

DEFENSE

DE – Grady Jarrett, Marlon Davidson, Jalen Dalton

NT – Vincent Taylor, Anthony Rush, Eddie Goldman, Timothy Horne

DE – Ta’Quon Graham, Nick Thurman, Bryce Rodgers, Derrick Tangelo

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, Jordan Brailford, Arnold Ebiketie

ILB – Deion Jones, Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen

ILB – Rashaan Evans, Dorian Etheridge, Nick Kwiatkoski, Nathan Landman

OLB – Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Quinton Bell, Rashad Smith, DeAngelo Malone, Kuony Deng

LCB – A.J. Terrell, Darren Hall, Mike Ford, Corey Ballentine, Cornell Armstrong, Lafayette Pitts

FS (Left) – Jaylinn Hawkins, Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe

SS (Right) – Richie Grant, Teez Tabor, Tre Webb

RCB – Casey Hayward, Isaiah Oliver, Dee Alford, Matt Hankins

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo

P – Bradley Pinion, Seth Vernon

LS – Liam McCullough

H – Bradley Pinion, Desmond Ridder

PR – Avery Williams, Cameron Batson

KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson, Avery Williams, Cameron Batson

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