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A two-man race emerging for second corner spot as Falcons break for summer

Through offseason practices, Mike Hughes and Clark Phillips III have competed for the Falcons’ No. 2 cornerback spot.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Who will start at cornerback opposite A.J. Terrell?

That's been a burning question through offseason activities that will continue to blaze into training camp. So far, it's been Mike Hughes and Clark Phillips III who have traded reps at the second starting role.

While they have a shared, larger goal as a part of the Falcons' secondary room, the battle for a starting job is the focus right now.

"Friendly competition brings out the best in all of us," Hughes said. "Not shying away from that is going to help everybody."

Hughes played with the first team in the initial training open to the media in May. Then Phillips stepped up in the next two weeks. He had the opportunity first when Terrell missed the next voluntary open practice, and then in Hughes' absence in the following one. Most recently, during the Falcons' mandatory minicamp practice, both saw action with the starting group.

Last season, his first in Atlanta, Hughes was often slotted at nickel back while splitting time as a returner on special teams. This season, though, it doesn't matter for Hughes where he's positioned just so long as he's contributing to the group's overall success.

"I love to win, so whatever I could do to help my team win," Hughes said, "I'm all in for it."

With no clear frontrunner emerging as minicamp and offseason programming wrapped up Wednesday, the duel for starting corner will continue when training camp begins in late July.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Mike Hughes #21 during OTAs at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Photo by Taylor McLaughlin/Atlanta Falcons)

The coaching staff seems to be high on Hughes and Phillips, both of whom finished the 2023 season in the starting lineup. After Phillips filled in for Terrell during offseason field work, head coach Raheem Morris glowed about the second-year defensive back.

"You love the nature of the human, he's just built for football and you can just tell. I'm sure he goes to the grocery store thinking about football," Morris said. "He's got a little bit of alien to him in that way. That's what I love about that young man."

Meanwhile, Hughes has been a bit of a surprise to coaches, especially to Falcons secondary coach Justin he became a first-time position coach this offseason.

"He's a good football player. He's smart in the meeting room. He's a leader," Hood said. "You forget that he's been around for a while, right? He's been fun to coach and be around and pick his brain."

Hughes enters his seventh season in the league as a former first-round pick. Through 72 career games, he's made 22 starts and recorded 199 tackles, 21 pass breakups, seven forced fumbles and three interceptions. By comparison, Phillips is still relatively green entering his sophomore campaign. He didn't see defensive action until Week 10 but finished the season strong, starting the last five outings at corner and accumulating five pass breakups.

As a veteran, Hughes said he's an open book for the young guys in the room seeking advice, including Phillips. Because even though they are both vying for the position Hughes wants the best for the guys in the room.

"As long as we just come out here willing to help everybody and showing these young guys the ropes," Hughes said, "it brings out the best of us."

That's what friendly competition breeds, the best. The best sportsmanship and ultimately the best person for the second cornerback position. Hughes understand this well.

"I know what I can bring to the table, I know ways that I can help this team," Hughes said. "Whatever coach needs me to do — I'll do it. I just want to come in every day ready to work and whatever happens, happens."

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