How Falcons' A.J. Terrell went from mediocre first-round cornerback to franchise cornerstone

Falcons second-year CB A.J. Terrell has made a leap from his rookie year and become one of the NFL's best. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It could be looked at, somewhat, as a lonely defensive existence. Every play, A.J. Terrell lines up expecting to see a pass, thinking the ball might come his way. And over and over this season, he'll go a series or a quarter doing what he does about as well as anyone in the NFL with little to no action.

Not that this is a bad thing.

Terrell has become one of the top cornerbacks in the league this season , and because of that he rarely has been tested by opponents of the Atlanta Falcons who have little to no interest in trying to throw into the void of offensive success Terrell creates.

"You go into each play, I'm thinking pass every play," Terrell said. "I'm not thinking run. I'm out there to guard the receiver so I'm thinking pass before run. My job is pass first so just being able to go out there each snap and not get complacent, just take care of my side and my business is what I'm here to do."

Business has been good, if not sporadic -- although that could change Sunday when he faces Tampa Bay and the combination of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. They are one of the most dynamic receiving duos in the NFL with a legend at quarterback, Tom Brady, who has seen every top cornerback of the past two decades.

If the Buccaneers do test him, it could be another proving point. Shut down his side of the field against Tampa Bay and perhaps even more people will take notice.

In 10 games this season, Terrell already has defended eight passes -- one more than he had in 14 games as a rookie. As a rookie, opponents targeted him 106 times according to Pro Football Reference, completing 67% for 13.2 yards per completion, 8.8 yards per target and six touchdowns.

This season? Terrell has been next to impossible to throw on. His 42.5% against is elite. He has the fewest receptions (17), receiving yards (114) and yards per attempt (2.9) and ranks second in lowest yards-after-catch per reception (1.8) in the NFL this season when he's the nearest defender, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats.

His quarterback rating allowed of 47.9 is second in the league among qualifying players, behind only New England's J.C. Jackson.

"Playing against him in practice, he has really good pattern recognition," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "But I also think that he's probably a lot further along within what the defense is asking him to do so he's a lot more comfortable in our own scheme, too, of where the help is and what some of the issues are.

"He never really seems to get himself out of position."

Ryan said when one faces a cornerback like Terrell, a quarterback has to be really "on point" in those situations and know what routes you're open to trying on that corner and which ones you know you should probably stay away from.

Going deep on Terrell is almost a non-factor -- as the air yards on completed passes on Terrell have gone for a total of less than one football field: 85 yards, according to Pro Football Reference.

In some ways, it has offered a level of comfort to Atlanta's other defenders as they continue to adapt and adjust within defensive coordinator Dean Pees' scheme. One side of the field is largely handled. Mistakes can happen, sure, but more often than not, Terrell is going to be the player in the better spot.

"It gives us confidence," linebacker Brandon Copeland said. "It's like playing next to Grady (Jarrett)." . How Terrell got there, though, is through a combination of talent, focus, work and an enhanced way of viewing the field.

Terrell was handed the sheet of paper, 31 questions long, every week. He was far from the NFL, still three years from becoming a first-round pick and longer from becoming one of the best young corners in professional football.

He was just a freshman -- a precocious one, but still -- essentially being given a checklist by Mike Reed, his position coach at Clemson. On it, Reed said, was much of what any defensive back needed to know and understand.

A completely voluntary assignment, Terrell saw the value. He took the list of questions, focused not only on opposing receivers but also quarterbacks, and committed both the questions and answers to memory.

"It's almost like an open-book test," Reed said. "So it has questions written so now when you're watching the film, you're watching it with purpose. You're not just watching film to watch film."

The questions -- initially devised by Reed when he played at Boston College before becoming 1995's Mr. Irrelevant for the Carolina Panthers and later going into coaching -- were the ones Terrell used. The ones that helped turn both Reed and Terrell into pros.

They ranged from writing down tendencies of a receiver on first-and-10 to what a receiver does on third-and-short when he goes inside and when he goes outside. Then he has quarterback questions -- does he stare down receivers? D}oes he pat the ball before he throws? Where are the quarterback's shoulders on out routes versus flat routes? Does he have big hands which means a one-handed pump-fake or a two-handed fake on double-moves?

Reed offers the sheet to all of his players. Not all of them take it. Few have adapted it to their games like Terrell, who by his sophomore season at Clemson didn't even need the sheet anymore. He had the questions -- and the ability to watch film -- ingrained in his subconscious. Reed, in a year, had taught him how to watch film.

"You would pick up things that would be [from] a whole bunch of things on the sheet," Terrell said. "So certain things I felt like I didn't really need. I just picked up what I needed off of the sheet and just played with it and it helped me going throughout the week for games."

Reed didn't know exactly what he was getting when Terrell arrived on campus. Freshmen can be like that. Some come to school trying to figure out who they are, what they want and the difference between working and working to reach the goals they want.

Early on, Reed had Terrell write down goals for several facets of his life: athletic, spiritual, social and academic. Terrell made it clear his goal was the NFL. In Terrell, Reed found a player who absorbed everything, a quiet kid with a purpose.

Reed approached everything in phases -- a prime-time phase, a transformation phase -- and each one had new goals. Terrell blew past all of them, not to where Reed had to create a new tier, but in a way where he knew Terrell had a real chance to reach the goals by the time he was a sophomore.

On Saturdays in the summer -- player-led periods called Sacrifice Saturdays at Clemson -- Terrell showed up and drilled down on small pieces he needed to improve: The technique he played with, the body positioning he had. For larger corners, Reed said, they don't always work enough to be able to handle smaller receivers where they might have to bend a bit.

Terrell, at 6 feet with a good wingspan, mastered it, paying as much attention to the nuance of his position as he did the larger picture.

"He was a kid that came and didn't do all the craziness," Reed said. "Who didn't have to go to college to find out who he was. He knew who he was when he got here."

By the time he was a junior at Clemson, opposing quarterbacks knew not to throw at Terrell. The chances for catastrophe for the team playing the Tigers were far greater challenging Terrell.

"Not getting targeted is good," Terrell said. "Know I'm doing something good, doing something right."

It was different then. Now, it's becoming a more familiar week-to-week thing.

That confidence -- from Terrell, from the coaches, from his teammates -- has grown throughout the season. It has manifested itself differently, too. As the season has gone on, Terrell has become more active.

A quiet guy, he has started speaking up more in defensive meetings and asking more questions, including in Pees' meeting with defensive leaders Wednesday mornings where the coordinator takes suggestions from players and begins to unfurl the game plan.

His on-field play has put him in consideration for Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods -- stated goals for the 23-year-old.

Now, Terrell starts with watching the top receivers on an opponent. He looks for variations in routes, tips of what the opposing receiver might do. He hasn't traveled with a receiver in Atlanta this season, so he needs to know a bit of everyone.

He tries keeping things simple. Doesn't overload his brain. He analyzes which route variations and concepts are most common for a particular receiver.

"They are the ones," Terrell said. "I try to master before the game."

This is all still an evolution. Much like it was in college. The point of Reed's sheet, the point of the preparation, is to create everlasting bases of knowledge on the different players Terrell will play. As he watches film, he has either his iPad or pieces of paper out to take notes. Then he organizes them and puts them in files.

For division opponents and for future reference, he saves all of them so he can double back later. It's all part of the process, one started at Clemson and continued a couple of hours south in Georgia -- the making of one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL.