ATLANTA – Day by day, week by week, practice by practice last season, Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell started to show a little bit more. What once was potential was turning into production. What once was hope in a first-round pick turned into a player who might be the best on the team’s defense.
And now, on a clearly rebuilding 2022 roster, one with many question marks even after the conclusion of the first couple of waves of free agency, there is one position group within the Falcons that stands out as, if not complete, at least potentially incredibly talented.
That’s at cornerback, where Terrell emerged as one of the best at his position in the NFL last season and might be the best player the Falcons have. Period. Atlanta also added a highly credentialed second option as well, signing former Pro Bowler Casey Hayward Jr. to play opposite Terrell on the outside.
While the 32-year-old is a half-decade removed from his back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, he remains a reliable starter and someone Terrell can lean on to learn from.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” Terrell said. “... I never thought that in his last couple of years that he would be playing with me on the other side and stuff like that. Definitely something, I can’t wait to get in the building with him and talk with him and just have fun going into next season.”
It’s a season that may have bumps along the way -- the Falcons have admitted they are in transition after trading quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts last month -- but cornerback could provide a bright spot. It could further the relationship Terrell and Hayward already have.
The two share an agent, David Mulugheta of Athletes First, which was part of the reason the two were introduced. They’ve remained in contact since and have familiarity with each other. Plus, there has been somewhat of a mutual admiration society between them.
When Terrell was growing up, he used to watch Hayward play corner. Last season, Terrell became one of the players Hayward was interested in continually watching. By osmosis, he ended up understanding part of Atlanta’s defense and his potential role in it.
“I got to kind of see the kind of defense that they play and it suits me well,” Hayward said. “So I’m excited to get better, play hard, go out there and compete. The goal is always to go and win games, no matter how people view the roster.”
At corner, the roster appears strong. The team re-signed Isaiah Oliver, who was in the midst of a breakout season before tearing his ACL, to potentially be the nickel. Darren Hall, now entering his second season, showed promise as a rookie thrown into an unexpected spot as someone needing to play meaningful snaps once Oliver went down.
So it’s a group that defensive coordinator Dean Pees can work with and one Hayward, in looking at Terrell, can genuinely be excited about. Not since Hayward’s time with the Green Bay Packers, when Tramon Williams and Sam Shields were the starting cornerbacks, has Hayward had someone that talented lined up at the other cornerback spot. When Hayward was with the Chargers, Jason Verrett was there but often injured. Last season with the Las Vegas Raiders, his running mates were good -- but not at the level of Terrell.
“This is probably my first time in my career,” Hayward said, “where on the other side, I’m like, dang, this guy is super talented and can go out there and lock the number ones up and one lot of the top guys in the league.”
And it’s a pairing the Falcons hope can help improve a defense still sorting everything else out.