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Falcons 2023 rookie report: The best week yet

Bijan and Bergeron were huge factors in Atlanta’s victory over the Saints.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons have been knocked repeatedly for their drafting in the Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith era, and it’s easy to see why. At the moment, though, there are some real contributors and a couple of emerging high-end starters in the team’s six-man 2023 draft class.

Here’s a look at how those rookies fared this past week against New Orleans.

RB Bijan Robinson: Continues to roll

There was a five week stretch where Robinson’s high water mark for rushing yardage in a single Sunday was 62 yards; his grand total over those five weeks was 199 rushing yards. With Robinson finally emerging as a focal point of the offense the past couple of weeks, he’s rolled up over 180 yards rushing combined against the Cardinals and Saints and has scored a rushing touchdown in each of the past two weeks. His days of dominance appear to have arrived.

With Robinson turning in a tidy 16 carry, 91 yard day on the ground, adding three receptions for 32 yards, and scoring a touchdown as a runner and receiver, he showcased the depth and breadth of his skills as one of the main reasons the Falcons were able to push past New Orleans. It won’t be that easy every week, but Robinson has been talented enough to put up that kind of production (or even better) since he arrived in the NFL, and the Falcons are figuring out the optimal ways to make that happen.

G Matthew Bergeron: Terrific day against Saints

Bergeron was the highest-rated guard in the NFL this past Sunday per Pro Football Focus, which is a damn fine day. Dig in a little deeper and you’ll see that he allowed just one pressure—now the fifth time this season he’s allowed one or fewer—and was excellent in terms of paving the way for a successful day for the ground game. I’ve said all season that there was no reason to worry about Bergeron’s growing pains because his talent is evident and he would get there; there are no guarantees that the rookie guard will be this good going forward every single week, but he can be this good on a regular basis.

DE Zach Harrison: Quieter day

Harrison pitched in a tackle on 24 snaps, the same number as he had against the Cardinals, and looked solid but didn’t make any major splash plays. We’re likely going to have to wait for him to arrive as a pass rushing force, if he ever does, but he’s a useful player against the run.

Perhaps the most interesting note here is that the team lined him up in the B gap five times on Sunday, which was more than they had at any other point this season combined, and that might signal that we’ll get a little more Harrison working toward the interior of the line going forward. That’ll be worth watching.

CB Clark Phillips: Inactive

Frustratingly, Phillips was back to being inactive after a mostly strong first effort against the Cardinals, one marred by a penalty and one major lapse in coverage. He certainly looked like a player worth developing, at the very least.

For now, it appears Phillips will only be pressed into action if the team is hurting at cornerback. I still expect him to have a significant reserve role, at worst, next season. His fortunes may depend on what the Falcons do with impending free agent Jeff Okudah.

S DeMarcco Hellams: Growing role

One of the most impressive players of the summer, Hellams had to wait a bit to carve out a significant role on this defense. It just wasn’t as long as I might’ve expected him to have to wait.

It has been a meteoric rise for the seventh round safety, who played a career-high number of defensive snaps Sunday and came up with five tackles (including three credited run stops, per Pro Football Focus) and three receptions allowed on three yards for a measly 11 yards. He was also called for taunting over a player who turned out to be injured, which maybe didn’t look good but was A) not because Hellams realized he had hurt said player and B) taunting directed at the Saints, which quickly endeared him to the fanbase.

The Falcons aren’t benching Richie Grant in favor of Hellams, but they’re finding ways to get him on the field more often as his confidence and competence continue to grow. I don’t think we can rule out Hellams having something approaching a starting role in 2024, and he’s auditioning for it right now.

G Jovaughn Gwyn: Inactive

We’ll see him in 2024, possibly. Hellams’ emergence as a seventh-rounder and Gwyn’s continued presence on the active roster suggest that he’ll be in the team’s plans for next season.