Skip to main content

Clark Phillips III makes the most of opportunities in first professional year -- Rookie Review

The Falcons fourth-round draft pick out of Utah didn't get a chance to take a defensive snap until Week 10. Once he did get that chance, he held onto it. 

Editor's note: The "Rookie Review" is a series of stories analyzing members from the Falcons' 2023 NFL Draft class. We take a look back at their 2023 production, as well as forward to what 2024 could hold for each individual.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Opportunities weren't aplenty for Clark Phillips III in the early days of his rookie year. The Falcons fourth round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft had to wait for his moments to come.

In training camp, the Falcons had Phillips playing primarily in the slot. However, Phillips was the Falcons' third option at nickel, behind Dee Alford and Mike Hughes. There wasn't really an opening there. As the season went on, the Falcons saw fit to have Phillips taking more reps at outside corner, his primary position in college. Still, though, Phillips was a few rows down on the depth chart, having A.J. Terrell, Jeff Okudah and Tre Flowers ahead of him. No real opening there, either.

So, Phillips bought some time, learning the ropes of both positions as his rookie year moved forward. As time went on, though, Phillips' opportunities grew.

The savvy defensive back from Utah went from being inactive in six of the Falcons' first 11 games of the 2023 season to starting the final five, playing every single defensive snap of the second Tampa Bay game and the Week 17 game against the Bears in Chicago.

Phillips went from a small contributor on special teams to starting opposite Terrell by the season's end. He gave the Falcons something to ponder in 2024. So, let's take a look back at Phillips' rookie season as the "Rookie Review" series rolls on.


A look back

The first taste of true defensive snaps for Phillips came in the Falcons' Week 10 loss to the Cardinals. Injuries to key members of the Falcons secondary in the weeks leading up to Atlanta's Week 11 bye pushed Phillips up the depth chart. And by the end of the season, Phillips had started five of the last six games.

In those six games, Phillips accumulated 26 total tackles (one for a loss) and five passes defended, according to Pro Football Reference. Phillips was targeted 36 times in 2023, allowing 18 completions for an average of 12.7 yards per catch. Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus attribute two touchdowns catches to Phillips when in coverage. Both of those touchdowns came in one game: The Falcons final loss to New Orleans.

What Phillips learned in 2024: Patience, and the importance of being ready at a moment's notice

The Falcons cross-trained Phillips for a reason. It was a good thing, too, as the Falcons played Phillips in the slot in his first defensive appearances in Arizona in Week 10. With Alford working through an ankle injury at the time, the Falcons needed Phillips inside. Then, when Okudah went out with an ankle injury after the Falcons Week 11 bye, the Falcons needed Phillips lining up outside. He was an important piece of depth for the Falcons down the stretch.

As noted in the lede, though, it took everyone a while to see that depth in action. When he finally did see action, though, Phillips left the coaching staff impressed.

"He's a fun player to watch," former Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said in Week 17. "There are always things that you go back and watch Clark that make you smile when you see the tape."

From the beginning of training camp to the end of the season, it almost felt like the coaching staff was itching for extended play for Phillips, too.

When he finally got it, he never let go, even when Okudah was healthy and back to 100 percent.

Areas for improvement: Penalties, body control

Phillips biggest strength is also, at times, his biggest obstacle.

Physicality has always been Phillips' calling card. Despite his smaller stature, Phillips' toughness and no-fear play is what brought NFL scouts calling in the pre-draft evaluation process.

"Whenever you watch him and he's making plays, you think a little guy wouldn't try to go in there and make a big guy tackle," assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said, "...he doesn't panic."

That physicality can sometimes be a little too much, though. According to PFF, Phillips was penalized six times, twice in the final game of the season in New Orleans. Those six penalties accumulated to 52 yards lost. Three of the six penalties were defensive holding, which is a notorious call for a rookie defensive back who is trying to make up ground against his opponent in a one-on-one scenario.

However, it can be said that, for every moment of his physicality getting in his way, he had moments where his physicality shined. Case in point: Phillips' nine defensive stops (according to PFF) and his five passes defended (according to Pro Football Reference). Finding a good middle group for that toughness and physicality can be what propels Phillips into his second year.

"Just doing what you're doing at your best every single time. That will be (the next step for Phillips)," former Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said at the end of the 2023 season. "And that's easy to do for him because he's a really good athlete. But that's something that we'll just stay on him (about) because he does have the technique. He knows where he's supposed to be."

Join us as we take a look back on our favorite photos from the Atlanta Falcons' 2023 season.

Related Content