'You Can See His Growth': Falcons DB DeMarcco Hellams Emerging as Starter in Secondary

Former Alabama Crimson Tide standout DeMarcco Hellams is poised for a breakthrough with the Atlanta Falcons.
Atlanta Falcons safety DeMarcco Hellams is poised for a breakout 2024 season.
Atlanta Falcons safety DeMarcco Hellams is poised for a breakout 2024 season. / Bob Scheer-USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When the Atlanta Falcons' first-team defense rotated onto IBM Performance Field on Monday, DeMarcco Hellams took his place as one of the two starting safeties, joining All-Pro selection Jessie Bates III.

In this moment, Hellams had his mind fixated on the doings of Kirk Cousins and Atlanta's offense, not the career-changing growth he'd made in some 10 months' time.

Last July, during the stages of Falcons training camp, Hellams, then a seventh-round rookie, worked with the third-string defense. He was fighting for a spot on the roster with hopes of being the team's No. 4 safety.

A strong preseason sparked by a team-high 18 tackles and two interceptions helped Hellams achieve that feat. An even-stronger regular season helped cement the opportunity to start in his second professional campaign.

Now, the 24-year-old Hellams is planning on turning a year full of lessons into another filled with highlights.

"Last year, I'm just seeing what the league's about - getting my feet wet as far as it was on special teams, a little bit on defense toward the end of the year," Hellams said. "I just feel like coming into this year, all the learning curves, I feel like I got those out the way Year 1.

"So going into this year, I feel like I'm just coming in as a bigger, stronger and faster player."

Despite leading Alabama with 108 tackles in 2022, Hellams fell to the Falcons at No. 224 overall. For the first 10 weeks of his professional career, the Washington, D.C., native played minimally on defense, failing to eclipse 20 snaps in a game.

He saw extensive action on special teams, headlined by playing at least 75 percent of Atlanta's snaps from Weeks 6-8, and finished the season at a 55 percent clip.

But Hellams's defensive fortunes turned after the Falcons' bye in Week 11. The defensive staff, then led by coordinator Ryan Nielsen, wanted to run more three-safety looks, and Hellams paired with Bates and Richie Grant to execute the package.

After the bye week, Hellams played at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps in each of his final six appearances, drawing four starts. As his role grew, Grant's diminished; in Weeks 15-17, Hellams was on the field for 183 snaps compared to Grant's 65.

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Hellams's season came to a premature end, as he missed Week 18 due to concussion protocol, and he finished his rookie campaign with 40 tackles, one tackle for loss and a quarterback hit.

But Hellams added something else to his resume: Quality film that impressed new defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake this spring.

Lake, who's now four months into his Falcons tenure, believes the 6-1, 213-pound Hellams has the tools to be a building block on Atlanta's defense.

"Going off the film from last year, you saw a physical player," Lake told SI's AllFalcons on May 22. "A guy that enjoys tackling, and really is one of the pillars of how we want to play - we want to play fast, we want to play free, we want to play physical, and he plays physical. He fills that for sure."

While at Alabama, Hellams earned the nickname "Hitman," an ode to his bone-crushing hits. He's well-regarded as a run defender but proved serviceable against the pass, allowing only 8.8 yards per reception on 19 targets last season, according to Pro Football Reference.

Physicality has long been the calling card for Hellams, who Bates said wants to hit people right now but can't because of OTA operating procedures.

Yet there's more to Hellams's game than hard hits.

Falcons secondary coach Justin Hood, who joined the organization in February after three years with the Green Bay Packers, quickly noted the caliber of player Hellams is and the experiences he's accumulated dating back to his college days.

But what makes Hellams particularly impressive starts from the neck-up and has little to do with his physical tools.

"Marcco is extremely intelligent," Hood told SI's AllFalcons on Wednesday. "Marcco's extremely consistent in his approach and his work ethic. So, that's what we really appreciate about him. You can see his growth, not only on the football field, but in his preparation and in the meeting room.

"You can see him start to come out of his shell some more, so that's encouraging to see."

Falcons assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said Hellams is "stepping up" and doing a great job this summer, merely continuing the positive momentum he generated to close last season.

This spring, Hellams received his first chance to take a step back in nearly 18 months. He spent his down time playing basketball alongside several other Falcons defensive backs, including Clark Phillips III and Natrone Brooks, at Gray's wish.

The grind of a rookie season is preceded by one final go-around in college, an extensive pre-draft process and a long summer during which rookies are learning schemes, playing catch-up to veterans and, in Hellams' case, fighting for a job.

Basketball offered a chance to get away. Now back in Flowery Branch, a well-refreshed Hellams feels at home.

"The second time around, more comfortable with the process," Hellams said. "I don't have to do a lot of things that rookies have to do as far as meetings and stuff like that. So, it's definitely been good going into my second year, just being in the building, knowing what's going on and what to expect."

It's not all new the same for Hellams. Really, it's quite different - from Lake's defense to Hood's teaching and everything in between.

But Bates has seen Hellams embrace the change amidst a strong, development-filled offseason.

"Marcco has done a really good job," Bates said. "I've always told Marcco he has no problem playing football, seeing it and feeling it. The biggest thing I've seen is him understanding the playbook and just being able to go, 'Oh, this is the same thing as what we ran last year,' or being able to just process routes and stuff like that.

"I can see the improvement and growth he's making as a player and as a person, so it's really cool to see."

There's not much of a secret to Hellams's growth. He's put his head down and worked, often ending individual workout periods drenched in sweat, according to Hood.

Physical tools are one thing. Alabama pedigree is another. But Hellams has married the two of them with a commitment to getting better, and he's reaped the benefits this offseason.

"He works hard," Hood said. "So, you can also appreciate that about him and you're happy to see that growth. Some of his work in the meeting room and on the football field and individual, all those small things are starting to propel him. He's making some strides on the practice field."

The Falcons finished OTAs on Thursday and will wrap up this phase of the summer with mandatory minicamp June 10-12 before taking a break until training camp starts in late July.

Training camp marks the beginning of real football, when Hellams will once again be able to hit others. For now, he's content to learn and keep his arrow pointing upward, as it has since entering the starting lineup in early December.

Hellams's stock with the Falcons hasn't been higher than it is now. He's made a strong impression on Atlanta's new defensive staff through his standout spring, and he'll enter camp as the favorite to start alongside Bates come Week 1.

It's a far cry from fighting for the last roster spot at safety, but that now appears to be a footnote in a story still being told.

"This offseason, he's made a lot of plays out there so far," Lake said. "And he's just got to continue to grind - which I know he will - and continue to grow. I love where he's at right now."

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Daniel Flick

DANIEL FLICK

Daniel Flick is an accredited NFL writer for Sports Illustrated's FanNation. Daniel has provided boots-on-ground coverage at the NFL Combine and from the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters, among other destinations, and contributed to the annual Lindy's Sports Magazine ahead of the 2023 offseason. Daniel is a co-host on the 404TheFalcon podcast and previously wrote for the Around the Block Network and Georgia Sports Hospitality Media.