Countdown to Camp: Terrell, Neal are question marks in Falcons secondary

5 things to know about Falcons top pick in 2020 NFL Draft

Editor’s note: Leading to the start of NFL training camp, we’ll take a look at the Falcons’ coaching staff and position groups. Rookies reported Tuesday. QBs and injured veterans reported on Thursday and the rest of the veterans July 28. Today: Defensive backs

When the Falcons open training camp after all of the COVID-19 testing, they’ll have two major question marks in the defensive backfield.

Rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, will be counted on to help replace the departed Desmond Trufant, and veteran strong safety Keanu Neal will attempt to make it back from his second season-ending injury.

Terrell, who played at Westlake High and Clemson, was selected with the 16th overall pick in the draft.

Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has a master plan for Terrell. The Falcons plan to work as fast as possible to get Terrell ready to play and maybe start right away in the NFL.

“When you draft a guy in the first round and you draft a guy that high, you like to think he can play in some significant part of the game,” Morris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently. “Whether he’s a starter or not, has yet to be determined.”

Morris seemed to think that Terrell could start right away.

“I would like to say yes, but I don’t want to make any predictions for him,” Morris said. “He’s got to go out there and compete with some really good football players. I would say this, when you get a guy that early, you’re going to give all of the effort, give him all of his due (respect) and chances to get him out on the grass as quickly as possible.”

The Falcons cut Trufant and have a gaping hole at left cornerback. Trufant signed with Detroit in free agency.

Neal, who missed 13 games last season after suffering a torn Achilles heel, missed most of the past two seasons. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against the Eagles in 2018. He went back in the game, but couldn’t continue.

He went down in the third game last season against the Colts.

“These past couple of years have been tough,” Neal said recently on the “Good Morning Football” show on NFL Network. “I try not to look at the negatives. I try to think positive about it. I’ve (had) a lot of opportunities to spend time with my wife, family, friends and groom myself personally. It’s been tough, but it’s been a great time. I feel really good mentally and physically.

“I’m ready to get back with the guys and get everything going. "

The hard-hitting Neal went to the Pro Bowl in 2017 and was considered the team’s enforcer on defense.

He posted an injury update on social media June 19. He’s working out at the Falcons’ facility and is shown back-pedaling and then coming out of his break.

“Almost 9 Months… continuing to make progress! Thank you for all the love and prayers,” Neal wrote on Instagram.

The Falcons were planning to play more big nickel with three safeties last season, but the injury to J.J. Wilcox limited those plans. If Neal can make it back, the Falcons could play him with Ricardo Allen, who finished last season at strong safety, and free safety Damontae Kazee.

The Falcons also added linebacker/safety Deone Bucannon, a former first-round pick, in free agency.

“Getting (Neal) back in addition to Rico (Allen) and Kazee, you can’t have enough safeties,” Morris said. “How are you going to play them? What are you going to do? All of that stuff works itself out.

“You’ve got to find a way to get the best players on the field. We always do. You never have enough players, and that’s what those three guys are.”

In addition to Terrell and Neal, the Falcons would like to see continued improvement from cornerback Isaiah Oliver, a second-round pick in 2018, who started all 16 games and played 944 (89.4%) defensive snaps last season.

Oliver was targeted on 88 plays and yielded 59 receptions. He received a 56.9 (F) grade from analytics website Pro Football Focus. Oliver had 61 tackles, 11 pass breakups, one quarterback hit, a forced fumble and no interceptions.

The Falcons asked Oliver to work on connecting his hands and feet at the line of scrimmage to help him better jam and re-route wide receivers.

“He put together a really good offseason for himself and for the team,” Morris said. “We are looking forward to getting him back. He must continue to grow from where he was. … You don’t want to skip any steps. You want him to go back and start from the basics, get all of his footwork connected.”

The Falcons believe Kendall Sheffield, who played well at nickel back last season, can play outside. They also re-signed steady veteran Blidi Wreh-Wilson in free agency.

Wreh-Wilson had seven pass breakups while playing in 14 games and making two starts.

“We have to get the ball back,” Morris said. “He was one of the few people to affect the ball and touch it.”

Also, the Falcons have cornerback Jordan Miller, who played in 10 games last season as rookie.

“He made big strides,” Morris said. “He had a really good virtual program. He was able to work out and change his body.”

Miller, a fifth-round pick from Washington, has three more games to serve on his four-game suspension for taking a banned performance-enhancing substance last season.

“He knows what he’s got ahead of him,” Morris said. “He knows what it means for him this year. I think he’s really got his head on the right way and is ready to come back and compete. I’m fired about Jordan Miller.”

DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD DEPTH CHART

RCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 29 Josh Hawkins, 39 C.J. Reavis, Delrick Abrams, 44 Tyler Hall

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 28 Jordan Miller, Rojesterman Farris

NCB 20 Kendall Sheffield, 34 Chris Cooper

SS 37 Ricardo Allen, 22 Keanu Neal, 32 Jaylinn Hawkins, 35 Jamal Carter

FS 27 Damontae Kazee, 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman

COUNTDOWN TO TRAINING CAMP 2020

Countdown to Camp: Focus will be on the offensive line

Countdown to Camp: Dan Quinn’s revamped coaching staff for 2020

Countdown to Camp: Special teams need major overhaul

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