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Falcons End of Season Awards: 2023 edition

Though the Falcons finished 7-10 and outside the playoffs, this wasn’t a season of no highs and all lows.

The Falcons fell short of their goals during the 2023 season, ending up at 7-10 and outside the playoff picture.

That's why I'm sure fans aren't thrilled to see end-of-season anything being rolled out at this stage. Yet, here we are, at another transition point after the decision to part ways with head coach Arthur Smith on Jan. 8.

While a dismissed coach is generally the consequence of catastrophe, this wasn't a season of no highs and all lows. The Falcons proved markedly better in several areas, with some star power, fun personalities and powerful moments during this season. General manager Terry Fontenot struck gold in free agency and the NFL draft, helping create strong internal belief that far better isn't too far away.

We'll highlight some of the best moments and players from 2023 in our annual End of Season Awards (working title, three years running, while waiting for inspiration to strike).

We'll start with some standard categories before moving on to some fun ones and big moments from the 2023 campaign.


Offensive Player of the Year: RB Bijan Robinson

Bijan Robinson was the first running back taken in the 2023 NFL Draft at No. 8 overall, higher than anyone at his position since Saquon Barkley in 2018. That led the analytics community and draft analysts to criticize the pick as too high and way too early despite the uncontested notion that Robinson was awesome.

Of that, there is no doubt. Robinson plays the position unlike many others, with the agility and football instinct required to make magic happen. He did that time and again for the Falcons en route to a stellar first season. Robinson finished 1,463 yards of total offense and eight touchdowns, with 976 yards coming on the ground.

His change of direction, elusiveness and rare combination of speed, shiftiness and power made him one of the NFL's best running backs as a rookie. Robinson steadiness and highlight-reel capability left some to wonder why he didn't get the ball even more.

During a year in which Falcons offensive inconsistency reigned, Robinson was a reliable talent who could be counted on to produce. That's why he's our offensive player of the year after an excellent first season, with promise of even better down the road.

We can't wrap this up without explaining how difficult it was to pick between Robinson and right guard Chris Lindstrom. The two-time second-team Associated Press All-Pro was both steady and ferocious the year after signing a massive extension – always a good sign – finishing second in run-blocking efficiency, sixth in pass-blocking efficiency and the highest Pro Football Focus grade among guards.


Defensive Player of the Year: S Jessie Bates III

Jessie Bates III is the Falcons defensive player of the year – a statement of the obvious if there ever was one. The veteran safety was worth every bit of the massive contract he signed last offseason and was the Falcons' most valuable player.

He single-handedly won a few games in 2023 with massive, game-changing plays. He was also the steady hand in the defensive backfield who covered up mistakes and made everyone around him better. He was named an AP second-team All-Pro – not being a first-teamer is highway robbery – on Friday after finishing his first Falcons season with 132 tackles, 11 passes defensed, six interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown) and three forced fumbles.

Bates was named a captain in his first year and instituted a players-only meeting that showcased both his leadership and commitment to excellence. He was awesome all year, a game changer and someone worthy of the Falcons' investment in him.

ROY (1)

Rookie of the Year: OL Matthew Bergeron

This easily could've gone to Robinson, but we're spreading the love because he already has an honor and there was someone else from an excellent 2023 NFL Draft class worthy of recognition.

Second-round pick Matthew Bergeron came to the Falcons having never played a game at guard in his entire life. The career tackle was moved inside as a pro and adjusted well enough to take the starting left guard spot out of training camp. He was so good and so steady that he ended up playing a team-high 1,129 offensive snaps. Bergeron executed them well, with solid work against the run and pass that suggests the Falcons have shored up a problematic left guard spot for years to come.

"He is about as good of a rookie in the NFL as you can possibly find," Lindstrom said. "He's been a phenomenal addition to our room. His approach, the style in which he plays, how quickly he's learning -- he has been doing phenomenal."

Rising Star (1)

Rising star award: ILB Nate Landman

The Falcons planned to use three-down linebackers Kaden Elliss and Troy Andersen almost exclusively on the inside. The pairing had real promise and found great chemistry during training camp that showed up well at the start of the regular season. Then Andersen sustained a pectoral injury during a Week 3 loss in Detroit.

Atlanta turned to an undrafted second-year player with a handful of NFL defensive snaps to his credit. Nate Landman was a revelation in a full-time role, filling in for Andersen without skipping a beat. He ended up with 110 tackles, including seven for a loss, two sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles and three passes defensed. There were times where he was calling the defense, in complete command despite his relative inexperience.

The Zimbabwe native – read more about his upbringing here – gained confidence throughout the year and has established himself as a quality NFL inside linebacker. Going from undrafted rookie to reserve to standout starter suggests that even better is ahead with more experience.

Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson #7 runs in for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of the Week 5 Game against the Houston Texans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, October 8, 2023. (Photo by Jay Bendlin/Atlanta Falcons)

Offensive play of the year: Bijan Robinson's behind-the-back TD

Robinson leaked out of the offensive backfield and just beyond the lines versus the Houston Texans, waiting for a shovel pass from quarterback Desmond Ridder. It ended up a bit behind him, but that didn't matter. Robinson corralled it with his right hand, pinned it to his back for stability and then brought it forward to protect it on his way to the end zone.

Robinson shifted away from pressure, split two defenders and scored. It was one of the first moments that showed just how special the Texas product could be.

This aerial view showcases this jaw-dropper in all its glory.

Honorable mention: Drake London's 45-yard catch against Tampa Bay ranks among the best catches I've ever seen. The second-year receiver had to alter his route inside while dealing with double coverage and a somewhat off-target throw, but London cut his defenders off and made a leaping catch that you can watch over and over again and always be in awe.


Defensive play of the year: Jessie Bates III's pick six vs. Saints

Bates surveyed the field from the end zone, read the developing routes and Saints quarterback Derek Carr surveying them. The Falcons safety knew right where Carr's pass was going and broke just before the ball was thrown. He easily intercepted it and then sprinted 92 yards for a touchdown. That moment illustrated Bates' rare combination of smarts and athleticism, which makes him a truly elite safety.

Atlanta Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo #6 celebrates with teammates after kicking the game-winning field goal during the fourth quarter of the Week 7 Game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Sunday, October 22, 2023. (Photo by Jay Bendlin/Atlanta Falcons)

Special teams play of the year: Younghoe Koo seals it (again)

Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo does this thing after walkoff field goals where he puts it through the uprights and then immediately tosses his helmet toward the sky. He got that chance in Tampa Bay, where his third field goal of the day claimed a Falcons victory as time expired.

Koo casually drilled it straight and true from 51 yards out, walked toward the sideline and then, as is tradition, chucked his helmet in celebration.


Sorely missed award: DL Grady Jarrett

The Falcons' defensive leader, top talent and public face of the franchise got hurt in a nondescript play early in a Week 8 loss to host Tennessee Titans. While it didn't seem like much at the time, the incident left Jarrett with a torn ACL that cost him the rest of the season. It robbed Atlanta of its best interior defender and someone who makes others better on the field and off.

The Falcons suffered without Jarrett's leadership, without someone to replace his all-around presence. While there isn't a direct cause and effect between the Jarrett injury and the Falcons' struggles overall down the stretch, it played a part in Atlanta losing seven of 10 results after the veteran went down.

Some good news: Jarrett spoke publicly after the season and said his rehab is going well and he's on track to regain full strength. That's a plus, because the Falcons will need him in 2024.

Honorable mention: PR/KR Avery Williams

The NFL's best punt returner from 2022 was lost for the year during OTAs, and his absence was felt on every punt, where the Falcons lost an average of 9 yards per return. That's nearly a full first down per drive. That impact can't be underscored.

Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Calais Campbell #93 prior to the Week 18 Game against the New Orleans Saints at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana on Sunday, January 7, 2024. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

Living legend award: DL Calais Campbell

Calais Campbell came to Atlanta late in the free-agent process, taking his time to find the right fit. The Falcons were that team, selling Campbell on an opportunity to mentor Atlanta youth and a young, up-and-coming defense throughout a season that started with great promise.

His off-field influence was expected, with the 16th-year veteran mentoring defenders about how to take care of their bodies and prepare like a pro. That was evident in the Falcons cafeteria, when Campbell often held court with young players looking for advice on NFL life and longevity.

He was also an excellent run defender who could still get after the quarterback, with his 6.5 sacks tied for the team lead. One of them was his 100th sack, a milestone added to a Hall of Fame resume.

Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman David Onyemata #90 runs out of the tunnels for warmups before the Week 16 Game against the Indianapolis Colts at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, December 24, 2023. (Photo by Jay Bendlin/Atlanta Falcons)

Underrated impact: DL David Onyemata

Veteran interior defensive lineman David Onyemata isn't exactly a big name among fans, but players and coaches respected the heck out of his game. That was evident in 2023, his first season in Atlanta after signing with the team in free agency. He had a solid statistical season, with 50 tackles, four sacks, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

His ability to do all that despite receiving steady double teams, especially after Jarrett suffered a knee injury, was impressive. Onyemata battled ankle injuries later in the year but still found a way to stop the run and take up blockers and allow others to make stops.

While Bates deserves his flowers, Onyemata also had a strong start to his Falcons tenure and was well worth his lucrative contract.

Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen on the sideline during the Week 12 Game against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, November 26, 2023. (Photo by Kevin Liles/Atlanta Falcons)

Assistant coach of the year: DC Ryan Nielsen

This award normally goes to a position coach, but new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen's impact was so strong that he deserves recognition here. I mean, I'll be hearing "attack and be aggressive" until my dying day. Bet the players will, too, because they completely bought into his schematics, intensity and passion for the game. The Falcons made a huge leap on defense, especially in quarterback pressure and work on critical downs. Nielsen is a rising star in the league, in my opinion, and had a significant impact on the Falcons and their team culture.

Atlanta Falcons director of video Austin Hittel films from the roof during the game against the Washington Commanders at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Sunday, October 15, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

Not-afraid-of-heights award: Austin Hittel

Surely, you've seen those awesome Falcons highlights shot from the rooftop. If not, see above. Austin Hittel's the man behind the viewfinder, with a camera literally strapped to his body while patrolling the Mercedes-Benz Stadium catwalk in search of big moments. His motion captures went viral on social, attracted attention from mainstream media and captivated the industry so much that copycats popped up from athletic events across the country. That happened for good reason. I mean, they're freaking awesome, especially when combined with the video team's editing and unique sound.

So, if you love those videos and see the guy pictured above out and about – he's hard to miss standing roughly 8-foot-3 – be sure to tell him how cool those shots were. And call him Auteur Austin. He absolutely loves that.

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