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Analysis: How the emergence of Clark Phillips III could change the Falcons cornerback position in 2024

Fourth-round NFL Draft pick has started the last four games on the outside, opposite A.J. Terrell.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — With just one regular-season game left on the Falcons' schedule, offseason questions loom across the roster, including the cornerback position.

The Falcons have two high-profile corners to make decisions about — A.J. Terrell and Jeff Okudah. Terrell is set to play next season on his fifth-year option but could be in line for an extension (more on that later) and Okudah is set to become a free agent.

Keeping both in the starting lineup may have been more of a priority a couple of months ago. Rookie Clark Phillips III's late-season emergence may have changed things.

"(Phillips's) a fun player to watch," 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 – just little subtle things. He likes to play."

Phillips played his first defensive snap in Week 10 but got an extended opportunity at the cornerback spot two games later when Terrell left the game with an injury. Phillips held his own and recorded four tackles and a tackle for loss.

Since then, Phillips started the last four games. Ahead of the regular season finale, the rookie defensive back has racked up 21 tackles and four passes defensed. Per Pro Football Reference, Philliips has allowed just 12 receptions for 129 yards and no touchdowns on 29 targets.

Phillips made his first start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14, as Okudah was inactive with injury. Phillips had his best game of the season then, with an effort that included two pass breakups.

In the next three games, Okudah played 24% of the defensive snaps, then 6% and did not play against Chicago in the most recent contest.

The Falcons seem to be high on Phillips' growth this season and his potential going forward.

"When you look at Clark, he's always energized," assistant coach/defense Jerry Gray said ahead of the Bears game. "He's always running. But 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...he doesn't panic."

Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen credited the way the Falcons practice as if there are no starters for Phillips' stability in handling the majority of the snaps. When asked about the starting role ahead of Week 16, Nielsen said the rotations were simply about keeping players fresh which they've done with the defensive line all season.

Phillips' base salary is just under a million in 2024 in his $3.8 million fourth-round rookie contract, per Okudah has had a guaranteed salary of about $3.7 million this season and could command a larger, veteran contract as he hits unrestricted free agency.

Last offseason the Falcons rewarded, now, two-time Pro Bowler Chris Lindstrom with a $105 million extension, per OTC, ahead of his fifth-year option. Lindstrom's base salary went $4.2 million against the cap this season with a $27.5 million signing bonus. The right guard's base salary goes up to $12.5 million in 2024 and continues to rise incrementally until it reaches over $17 million in 2028.

It could be possible — emphasis on possible — that the Falcons front office might do something similar with Terrell, who was named to the All-Pro second team in 2021 and has been more than a formidable corner in his four seasons in Atlanta. They could also circle back on the extension question the following year.

The Falcons also have cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Dee Alford under contract in 2024, adding outside depth and production in the slot.

Atlanta will have lots of decisions to make come March with 21 free agents coming off the books, not to mention the quarterback question, which hasn't had a clear answer this season.

Phillips may have shown the staff enough to answer a question at cornerback. The next step for his sophomore campaign will be consistency.

"Just doing what you're doing at your best every single time. That will be (the next step), and that's easy to do for him because he's a really good athlete," Nielsen said. "That's something that we'll just stay on him because he does have the technique. He knows where he's supposed to be."

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the New Orleans Saints.

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