The Atlanta Falcons moved to bolster their secondary by taking Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell with the No. 16 pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, looking past his struggles in the national championship game.
Following the release of top corner Desmond Trufant in a salary-cap move, the Falcons had an obvious need heading into the league’s first virtual draft.
There was speculation that Atlanta would try to trade up to the No. 9 pick to grab the highest-rated college cornerback, Florida’s CJ Henderson. But Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said there were no serious trade discussions.
“We were focused at the corner position on A.J. Terrell,” Dimitroff said.
Terrell, an Atlanta native who played at Westlake High School, joins a youthful position group. Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield came aboard in the last two drafts.
After struggling in this past season’s national championship game against Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and the high-powered LSU Tigers, there were some who thought Terrell might return for his senior season. But the decision to enter the draft clearly paid off for the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, who gets a chance to play for in his hometown team.
“That performance didn’t dissuade us at all,” Dimitroff said. “Burrow had a hell of a game. He dropped the ball in there a lot. He had a couple of opportunities that he really capitalized on. But we look at the full picture. … There were other games that really stood out in our minds.”
Even so, Terrell feels he has something to prove after that last outing in New Orleans.
“I’m ready to get back to work. I’m ready for the next game,” he said. “For me, that (national championship) game was definitely a learning experience. It’s just never being satisfied. I’m ready to get back to work, ready to get back in the lab.”
Terrell watched the proceedings remotely in Atlanta with his parents, siblings and a few friends.
“I’m so happy,” he said. “It’s a surreal moment. I’m just ready to get to work.”
After selecting offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb Gary in the first round a year ago, it wasn’t surprising the Falcons focused on defense coming off their second consecutive 7-9 finish.
Coach Dan Quinn saved his job with four straight wins to finish 2019. But the pressure is on Quinn and Dimitroff to make the playoffs this season.
They’ll be counting on their top draft pick to make an immediate impact, especially playing in the NFC South. The Falcons’ defense will be challenged this season by a pair of games against two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history — Drew Brees in New Orleans and Tampa Bay newcomer Tom Brady.
“There’s some pretty good quarterbacks in the NFC South,” Quinn said. “We’re going to have high standards for our cornerbacks right away.“
Terrell had six interceptions in three seasons at Clemson, where he earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in 2019. He was the second Tigers defender to go in the opening round, following Isaiah Simmons to the Arizona Cardinals at No. 8.
Terrell helped Clemson reach the College Football Playoff every year of his college career, highlighted by a national championship his sophomore season. In the title game against Alabama, he intercepted a pass from Tua Tagovailoa and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown that helped propel the Tigers to a 44-16 rout of the Crimson Tide.
Even before the draft, Dimitroff made plenty of moves.
He addressed one of the team’s pressing needs by acquiring tight end Hayden Hurst in a trade with Baltimore. The Falcons gave up one of their two second-round picks in the deal, which came after the team cleared salary cap room by cutting four veterans, including Trufant and running back Devonta Freeman.
Dimitroff then used the cap space to sign outside linebacker Dante Fowler to a $48 million, three-year contract and running back Todd Gurley to a $6 million, one-year deal.
With later picks, the Falcons could still be looking for an edge rusher to complement Fowler after ranking the bottom of the league with 28 sacks.
They also need help help at defensive tackle, where Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison are probable starters. Offensive line depth is another priority.
Barring a trade, Atlanta’s next pick is set for the second round at No. 47 overall Friday night.
“That’s a good place for us to be,” Dimitroff said. “That’s a really rich area in the early part of the second round.”