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Why playing basketball in the offseason is 'the best thing for a defensive back'

A group of Falcons defensive backs, including DeMarcco Hellams, Dee Alford and Jessie Bates III, are sharpening their football skills with offseason hoops. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — In the dead of the NFL offseason, the Falcons secondary comes alive on the basketball court.

A group of defensive backs, including — but not limited to — Dee Alford, DeMarcco Hellams and Clark Phillips III, play pickup basketball at a local gym near the team facility. They don't play around.

"We come in with our squad and see who can get us off the court," Hellams said.

Alford's squad in particular is undefeated. While the players are cognizant of not going too hard to prevent injury, the competitive fire still comes out. That's not something the Falcons staff is worried about. Actually, it's welcomed.

At the end of last season, assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray encouraged the room to step away from football before the players returned to the building in April.

"Those are things that you can have fun at but really helps you with your technique," Gray said. "... A lot of times coaches say, 'No, just be football players.' Well, you should be better than a football player."

Atlanta Falcons assistant head coach of defense Jerry Gray during OTAs at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Monday, May 20, 2024. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

It may quite literally be all fun and games, but it also directly translates to training for the season specifically for the secondary. The basketball defensive stance is similar to how members of the position group need to slide their feet and keep offensive players in front of them. Tracking the ball for a rebound or a steal can help with spatial awareness for an interception. Not to mention, it simply helps with conditioning.

"That's the best thing for a defensive back," Gray said.

Jessie Bates III takes it even one step further. Bates will partake in some hoops, but as a self-proclaimed three-sport athlete, he'll play a little baseball and softball to keep his safety skills sharp, too.

"I always say it's the same thing," Bates said. "Reading a baseball bat (is the) same thing as a quarterback throwing the ball."

Bates hasn't gotten to play at the local gym in Flowery Branch, joking his teammates might be too scared to extend an invite. After all, he said, he's the best shooter on the team. Bates will, however, practice some pick-and-roll with NBA center Malik Williams. While Williams is one of Bates' close friends as a fellow Fort Wayne, Indiana, native, the two playing together takes the advice Gray offered to the next level given Williams' professional talent.

"If you can go play against some college guys that are really good at basketball, go play against them," Gray said, "because then guys are going to help you get to where you got to go."

Some of the opponents Alford and company play against may be "church league" guys, but often times, they'll match up with Georgia State players. And sometimes, they'll recognize their NFL counterparts.

"'Is (that) you, Dee?'" Alford recalls the opponent asking.

Alford simply responded, "I'm Dee."

Then, Alford said, the whole gym erupted in excitement, chanting, "'They play for the Falcons! They play for the Falcons!'"

While it was a thrilling moment, the younger players can also take pride in knowing they indirectly helped train the Falcons secondary. If they see Hellams pick off a pass or Alford not allow a wide receiver to get by, they know moves on the hardwood translated to the gridiron.

"Those two sports," Alford said, "really go along pretty good."

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