Falcons Defense Banking on 2023 Draftees to Make Second Year Jump

A trio of second-year pros are fighting for big roles on the Atlanta Falcons' defense.
Defensive end Zach Harrison is one of a trio of Atlanta Falcons eyeing a second-year breakthrough.
Defensive end Zach Harrison is one of a trio of Atlanta Falcons eyeing a second-year breakthrough. / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons' defense finds itself in a familiar position with training camp looming: Facing questions.

After taking a step forward in 2023 under defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, the Falcons are staring down uncertainty - starting with Nielsen's replacement, first-year NFL coordinator Jimmy Lake, and a coaching staff full of fresh faces.

Extending beyond the staff, Atlanta is littered with doubt at pass rush, cornerback and safety. The Falcons' 2023 draft class may have the best solutions at each spot.

Rushing the passer has often troubled the Falcons, who have 138 total sacks over the past five years, the worst mark in the NFL. They took a step forward last season, with their 42 sacks ranking No. 21 league-wide and eclipsing their two-year combined total of 38 from 2021-22.

But this offseason, Atlanta lost its top two sack producers from last year, as Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree - who had 6.5 sacks apiece - signed elsewhere in free agency. There's a new defensive line coach in Jay Rodgers and a new scheme led by Lake, as the Falcons are transitioning from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.

With a heavy dose of snaps available, opportunity exists for several returning Falcons to take a step forward. Perhaps nobody is more capable than second-year defensive end Zach Harrison, who had three sacks, four tackles for loss and four quarterback hits in his final three games last season.

Harrison's late ascent as a rookie parlayed him into a first-team role on Atlanta's defense during OTAs and minicamp. The 6-6, 274-pounder has added weight to his frame and confidence to his mind in the past year, and Lake said he likes where Harrison stands at this stage in the summer.

"He's had an excellent offseason," Lake told FalconsSI during OTAs. "He's really excelled - his fundamentals, his footwork, his hand placement has gotten a lot better. You see how hard he's been working with our strength and conditioning guys.

"And then you don't see a lot of mistakes right now with the new fronts that we're installing and the new movements up front."

But Lake added Harrison has to show continued improvement throughout the summer, and training camp - which starts when players arrive July 24 - will be the first time Atlanta's new staff sees the former Ohio State standout in pads.

Again, uncertainty - but with a subtle sense of optimism that's only grown the more Harrison has shown thus far.

It's a similar story at No. 2 cornerback, where another second-year pro, Clark Phillips III, is a strong candidate to start. Phillips spent OTAs and minicamp battling with 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes for the spot opposite A.J. Terrell.

Like Harrison, the 22-year-old Phillips surged down the stretch of his rookie campaign, failing to play a defensive snap for the first 10 weeks before starting the final five games. He tallied 27 tackles, one tackle for loss and five passes defended in 2023.

Phillips allowed only 18 receptions for 229 yards and two scores on 36 targets, and he made a quick impression when Morris reviewed tape from last year. Atlanta's new coach compared Phillips to an alien because his mind never strays far from football.

Entering summer break, Morris said he's excited about the potential oozing from Phillips.

"He’s done a really nice job of elite movement," Morris said in OTAs. "He’s done a really nice job with mirroring and matching. He’s done a great job of putting the work in, in individuals to align himself to throw a great training camp in."

Harrison and Phillips are essentially in the same spot career-wise: Hoping to build on a strong finish to their rookie years by cementing a starting job this summer. The same is true for safety DeMarcco Hellams.

Atlanta has no questions at the top of its safety depth chart, where reigning All-Pro Jessie Bates III leads the group both on and off the field. Who takes the field next to him, meanwhile, is far less clearcut.

The 24-year-old Hellams was a seventh-round pick in 2023 and turned a strong preseason into a roster spot as Atlanta's No. 4 safety, trailing Bates, Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins.

The Falcons waived Hawkins in the middle of October, and after the bye in Week 11, Hellams became a more prominent defensive figure as Nielsen turned to three-safety packages. In Weeks 15-17, Hellams played nearly three times as many snaps as Grant, all but taking over as the lead option next to Bates.

Hellams, who stands 6-1, 213 pounds, finished his rookie season with 40 tackles, one tackle for loss and a quarterback hit while starting four of his final five appearances.

This summer, Hellams has been the primary first-team safety alongside Bates, with Grant occasionally rotating in. Hellams has garnered praise from Bates, Lake and secondary coach Justin Hood for the quality offseason he's put together, and he appears well-positioned to win the starting job during training camp.

"Marcco is extremely intelligent," Hood told FalconsSI during OTAs. "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."

The Falcons spent extensive free agency capital addressing their offense, deferring their defensive focus to the draft, with five of eight picks coming on Lake's side of the ball. Atlanta selected three defensive tackles - Ruke Orhorhoro, Brandon Dorlus and Zion Logue - and edge rusher Bralen Trice to help pressure quarterbacks, and the Falcons also added linebacker J.D. Bertrand.

Last year, as the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, Morris saw a pair of third-round rookies - defensive tackle Kobie Turner and edge rusher Byron Young - combine for 17 sacks. That's an exception, not the norm, for most rookie pass rushers, especially non-first round picks.

As such, player development becomes critical. A common idea in NFL circles is that players often take the biggest leap in their career from their rookie season to their second, be it from the lessons learned, confidence gained and everything in between.

The Falcons would certainly enjoy a Rams-esque situation to unfold with their pass rush, but the odds are already slim up front, and there's no such possibility on the backend, where Atlanta failed to add until after the draft.

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said the process of player acquisition runs year-round, and the makeup of Atlanta's roster can - and almost certainly will - change between training camp and Week 1.

But at least for now, the Falcons' best bet at solving their biggest defensive questions comes from a trio of second-year players aiming to take a leap. Strides have already been made this summer, but the final answer on each won't be in until much closer to the start of the season.

Thus, Atlanta's staff is pushing for more splash plays and day-to-day progress - all the while recognizing there's a chance the bet doesn't cash this year.

"You got to be able to develop everyone, and at some point, it just starts to click," Rodgers said during OTAs. "Only time will tell. Will it be this year? Will it be the first week of training camp? Will it be the last week of training camp? You just don't know."

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.