The Falcons defensive backfield will enter training camp looking like a real team strength. It has been a while since we've been able to say that.
This group, from the outside cornerbacks to safeties, looks more than capable on paper. They've got a pair of 2020 first-round picks in A.J. Terrell and Jeff Okudah working on the outside. Safeties Jessie Bates and Richie Grant will man the middle, with Jaylinn Hawkins lending experienced talent to the group.
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Dee Alford and Mike Hughes will battle it out to man the slot, though fourth-round rookie Clark Phillips might have something to say about that.
Depth and talent in the secondary. Sounds pretty good, definitely better than in recent seasons.
That doesn't mean everything is set and secure.
Well, except for Terrell and Bates. Expectations for those two should be sky high, with great odds they'll meet them.
Question marks remain for the others.
We have both a young and experienced group. It kind of reminds me of what we had in Cincinnati," Bates said during the offseason program. "There's a lot of prove as a team and personally for so many of our guys. That's a big deal. I remember being in those shoes the last couple years. The sense of urgency kind of picks up."
There's clearly motivation to show well in 2023. That's clearly true for Okudah.
We know he's a supreme talent, but he needs to show he can build on the positivity from a 2022 Lions campaign where he remained healthy after previous injury setbacks and proved tough to complete a pass against. If that happens, and he responds well to coaches Jerry Gray and Steven Jackson, the Falcons will be in great shape.
That will be the case if Mike Hughes can find form that made him a first-round pick in 2018, though Dee Alford was impressive during the offseason program and will battle for the slot cornerback spot. The loser of that competition should provide quality depth, another benefit of a revamped position group.
The Falcons view Grant as an ascending player, but he'll now have to take proper steps to secure his three-down status opposite Bates. Hawkins was impressive this spring
There might be a few spots available in training camp, depending on Arthur Smith's overall roster construction. The Falcons might keep nine or 10 defensive backs, depending on special teams needs.
We're at seven when looking at the guys already mentioned. Fourth-round cornerback Clark Phillips III sure seems like an eighth member of the secondary. Cornerbacks Darren Hall, Tre Flowers and Cornell Armstrong are also heavily in the mix. So are safeties Micah Abernathy and rookie DeMarcco Hellams.
It will be interesting to see how the secondary shakes out. There's injury protection here and far more of a complete group than previous points in the Arthur Smith/Terry Fontenot era. The Falcons were exposed at times by weaknesses opposite Terrell especially and couldn't weather injuries to Isaiah Oliver in 2021 and Casey Hayward in 2022.
Bates is expected to make those around him better, and his job in camp will be to enhance communication and help the secondary play well together.
If the pass rush improves – we all know the defensive front and backfield are dependent on each other – we should see more takeaways, deflections and positives covering on the back end.
Join us for a sneak peek at some of our favorite photos of Desmond and Drake from the 2023 Atlanta Falcons creative days.