Falcons’ A.J. Terrell turning in fine rookie campaign

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris comments on the growth of A.J. Terrell and the move of Isaiah Oliver to nickel.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

In only his 10th NFL game, Falcons rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell had the massive assignment of matching up with one of the league’s top receivers in New Orleans’ Michael Thomas.

Thomas, who led the league in catches (149) and yards receiving (1,725) last season, was targeted 11 times and caught nine passes for 104 yards. Terrell held up in the 21-16 loss to the Saints on Sunday, but botched an opportunity for an interception and possible touchdown.

“He’s just a guy playing out there and learning on the run and a guy that was able to shadow Michael Thomas a little bit on a couple of our calls and actually go out there and compete at a very high level,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said. “You’re going to give up some catches to Michael Thomas. He’s going to get the best of you sometimes.”

Terrell, who played at Westlake High and Clemson, finished with nine tackles, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a tackle for loss. He’s a strong candidate for the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team.

Terrell is the highest rated rookie cornerback who has played at least 200 snaps this season with a grade of 70.6 by profootballfocus.com.

“I was just playing the game within the game,” Terrell said. “Making the plays that came my way. Just being confident. Just being in the right position at the right time. Just making all of the plays when they are there.”

Terrell was the 16th player taken overall and the third of six cornerbacks taken in the first round of the 2020 draft. Detroit drafted Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah third overall. Jacksonville selected C.J. Henderson with the ninth pick.

Ohio State’s Damon Arnette went 19th to Las Vegas, Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene 30th to Miami and TCU’s Jeff Gladney 31st to Minnesota.

Only Gladney (713) has played more defensive snaps than Terrell (644), and that’s because Terrell missed two games on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Arnette has the lowest passer rating allowed, at 101.6, followed by Henderson (110.2) and Terrell (116.5).

That trio is followed by Okudah (118), Gladney (121.2) and Igbinoghene (141.5).

“The development of A.J. has been critical throughout the season,” Morris said. “You’re talking about a rookie who started from the beginning and has gone to the point where he’s not even a rookie anymore.”

The other first-round cornerbacks are rated lower than Terrell by Pro Football Focus: Henderson (sixth), Gladney (10th), Arnette (11th), Okudah (15th) and Igbinoghene (17th).

Minnesota’s Cameron Dantzler (a third-round pick), Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed (fourth round), Dallas’ Trevon Diggs (second round) and New York Jet Bryce Hall (fifth round) are the top four corners behind Terrell, according to Pro Football Focus.

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Terrell, without the benefit of an offseason program, has adjusted to the speed of the NFL game.

“Teams and quarterbacks are more likely to catch that mistake,” Terrell said. “In college they will miss it. The game is faster.”

Terrell, Henderson and Okudah have their first interceptions. Terrell almost had his second against the Saints.

“Definitely, we all wish we had plays back,” Terrell said. “I’ve got to make the play next time.”

With four games left, Terrell is set to match up with Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans or Antonio Brown and perhaps Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill.

“I’m looking forward to each and every opponent that I face, whether I’m matching or not,” Terrell said. “Just going in and just being confident, making plays when they are there. All of them are worthy, but all I can worry about is to control what I can control.”

Terrell wants to close the season strong.

“We just have to continue to finish teams off,” Terrell said. “Just grow as a team, as a whole.”

Terrell often is seen in practice and during games chatting with Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.

“He’s just telling me things receivers do, just getting me ready and prepared for matchups,” Terrell said. “What to expect from this guy and little tips. That’s all he’s doing, just giving me tips.”

Of the six rookie first-round cornerbacks, Terrell ranks fourth in completion percentage allowed. Players have caught 43 of 61 targets (70.5%) for 595 yards and four touchdowns.

Igbinoghene (58.3%), Henderson (64.7%) and Gladney (69.3%) have lower completion percentages allowed. Arnett (75%) and Okudah (77.4%) are behind Terrell.

“I’m really fired up about where he’s going,” Morris said. “I’m really fired up at his demeanor and how he approaches every single game.”

Falcons defensive backs coach Joe Whitt also has been impressed with Terrell progress.

“He’s going to be really, really good player in this league,” Whitt said. “He has the length. He’s smart. He’s tough. He can get in and out of breaks with guys. I’ve been pleased with how he plays.”

The Falcons will not hesitate to put Terrell on the opposition’s No. 1 receiver.

“We’ve put him in some of the tough situations, tough matches,” Whitt said. “I’ve just been really pleased with how he’s playing, especially as a rookie. Rookies don’t usually play well early.”

Falcons’ final four games

Falcons at Chargers at 4:25 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 13

Buccaneers at Falcons at 1 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 20

Falcons at Chiefs at 1 p.m., Dec. 27

Falcons at Buccaneers at 1 p.m., Jan. 3

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