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'He has something you can't teach': How the Falcons decided on Clark Phillips III in 2023 NFL Draft

When it came time for the the No. 113 overall pick in this year's draft, the Falcons went after something that can't be taught: Fearlessness. 

Finding Falcons is a series dedicated to telling the stories of not just the fact that the Falcons decided to draft a specific player, but rather the why behind doing so. Based on exclusive interviews with Falcons position coaches, area scouts and the decision-makers at the top, the Falcons brass details the moments that solidified the decision to draft each of the men who make up their 2023 draft class. For six consecutive weeks, we'll tell those stories.

We've already told the stories of the Falcons first three draft picks: Bijan Robinson, Matthew Bergeron and Zach Harrison. Now the spotlight is on Clark Phillips III, a player who's feisty competitiveness caught the Falcons eye.

By: Tori McElhaney

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Drake London stands at 6-foot-4, 219 pounds. Clark Phillips III? He stands at 5-foot-9 and about 35 pounds lighter. Of course, those measurables could have looked a bit different in October 2021, but the gist of this particular matchup remains the same. So, why does this date (October 2021) and these sizes (and their differences) matter? Because it shows you exactly what the Falcons saw when Phillips first dropped onto their radar.

At the time, Atlanta was well into the scouting process for the 2022 NFL Draft. They were already putting boots on the ground to see London, arguably the best receiver in that draft class. And in October 2021, the receiver showcased why, even in a loss.

When London's USC faced Phillips' Utah during that season, London finished the game with 16 catches for 162 yards. It was another solid performance by the receiver who's name the Falcons would call six months later with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

This isn't London's story, though. This is Phillips' story, because even as the Falcons were laser focused on London, Phillips roamed around the back of their minds just as he roamed around the secondary on that October day. Though, yes, London's stat line was the most impressive, it was Phillips and the Utes who came out of that game with the win. Phillips - for his part - finished the game as Utah's second-leading tackler. He also had three passes defended. A few of these moments came against London, despite the matchup being one that leaned heavily in London's favor, what with the added seven inches of height and 35 pounds of weight.

What impressed the Falcons that day wasn't necessarily the stat line, though. It was the mindset, the aggression they saw from Phillips.

"The more games you watched of Clark, it didn't matter who he was going against, even last year going against Drake London at USC, this guy will come downhill," Falcons national scout Michael Ross said. "(Phillips) is going to bring it. He didn't shy away from anybody."

As London made his way to the NFL, and as Phillips finished up his final year with Utah, that fire in Phillips never faded. If anything, it burned brighter.

Phillips finished the next year leading the Pac-12 in interceptions. He was also honored as an unanimous All-American. And while all of that is well and good and something the Falcons took note of, Phillips' ability to be a tone setter in any given situation, and in any matchup, was the thing that ultimately helped usher in the marriage of Phillips and the Falcons in the 2023 NFL Draft.

"His energy, he always brought it," Ross said. "Every rep he wanted to win and that's the mindset that we're looking for."

Immediately following Phillips' name being read off in connection with the Falcons' No. 113 overall pick in this year's draft, one of his new coaches was sitting at the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch dialing his number.

Falcons assistant head coach Jerry Gray has 26 years of NFL coaching experience. That's five more years than Phillips has been alive. As a defensive coordinator for eight years and a secondary coach for 16, Gray has seen any and every body type there is.

Small, tall, lanky, long, you name it, he's seen it. A 5-foot-9 defensive back doesn't worry Gray, particularly when that 5-foot-9 defensive back is Phillips.

"He reminds me a lot of those guys who may not have the measurables, but he has something you can't teach," Gray said. "A lot of people overlook that. They'll say, 'Oh, well he doesn't hit this statute, so I may not even turn the film on.' Well, I want to see if he's a good football player. He showed me he was."

The "something you can't teach" part of what Gray is saying can be summed up in a few words: Fearlessness, eagerness and feistiness. These are the traits the Falcons saw displayed from Phillips at every turn of his college career.

There's fearlessness, Gray said, not in the way Phillips had the most interceptions in his conference last year. There's fearlessness in the way he attained each one.

"You have to be in position and you can see when he's playing that he puts himself in the position to make those plays," Gray said. "No. 2, he's watched enough film to be in position to make those plays. Then, No. 3, he has the courage to go do it. A lot of times the thing that separates the good ones from the great ones is the courage."

Too often Gray has seen a defensive back miss out on making a play because, when the time comes, he second guesses himself.

"The doesn't seem like that's him," Gray said of Phillips.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Clark Phillips #34 during the 2023 Rookie Minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

Then, there's the eagerness, which brings us back to the night Phillips was drafted as his phone was ringing, with Gray on the other line.

Within the first few moments of the call, Gray said Phillips was already asking for the playbook.

Gray laughed, trying to get Phillips to enjoy the moment for what it was (the young defensive back had just been drafted after all) but Phillips had other things on his mind.

"No, no, no, Coach," Gray remembers Phillips saying to him, "find out if I can get the playbook."

Finally, there's the feistiness, and it was Falcons VP of player personnel Kyle Smith who made a point to note it.

As Smith explained, when you do have a player who doesn't quite fit the specific measurables that you're ideally looking for, there has to be compensation. The fearlessness, eagerness and feistiness of which Phillips plays with is that compensation.

"For Clark Phillips, yes, he is short, but he has tremendous lateral agility, tremendous short-area quickness and he's an instinctive player with ball skills," Smith said. "There are things that he can compensate with, and he's an aggressive kid... He's got some feisty competitiveness to him that we like and you've got to have."

For the Falcons, Phillips was always more than his height. Even when he was facing London in October 2021, his measurables weren't what caught the Falcons eyes. In the end, it wasn't his measurables that brought him to Atlanta, either.

What brought Phillips to the Falcons in Atlanta was the fierceness of which he's always played.

"This guy plays bigger than his size," Ross concluded.

Take a look at the Atlanta Falcons in action during the 2023 First Look practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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