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Falcons rookie report: Finishing the year strong

Atlanta’s rookie class is rolling at the end of the year.

Indianapolis Colts v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons have had uneven draft classes for years now, and certainly in the Arthur Smith-Terry Fontenot era. The 2021 class had its fair share of misses and the 2022 class has its ups and downs, but the good news is that the 2023 group has proven to be better and more consistent to this point.

In Week 16 against the Colts, every rookie except one had a role, and several of them were pretty terrific. Here’s a look at how Week 16 went and the 2024 outlook for all six members of the rookie class.

RB Bijan Robinson: Unleashed against Colts

After three frustrating weeks in a row, Robinson picked things up and had an all-around quality game. He rushed 12 times for 72 yards and reeled in seven of his 10 targets from Taylor Heinicke for 50 yards. That combined output has him closing in on William Andrews’ all-time rookie record for combined rushing and receiving yards, which should surprise no one.

With the offensive line getting healthy at last and with Robinson continuing to dominate snaps, we should see another effort like this (or two) over the final two games. If the offense has been frustrating and Robinson has made some rookie mistakes, he has also proven to be a player who is difficult to defend as a runner and one who has a lot of utility as a pass catcher. I’d expect much more in 2024.

G Matthew Bergeron: Solid Sunday

The one stalwart on an offensive line recently hit hard by injury, Bergeron turned in an uneven effort on Sunday, allowing a pair of pressures and picking up a penalty. He was still solid on the day and was once again one of the only Falcons linemen who played the entire game, as his up-and-down but encouraging first season draws to a close.

He’s the long-term starter at left guard, assuming the team doesn’t explore shifting him to left tackle down the line, and his durability and mostly solid work this year has been a boon.

DE Zach Harrison: Catching fire

I figured we would not see Harrison really take off this season, even with the steady snaps he has been receiving throughout the year. Those snaps were still valuable for his growth, and that growth is something the Falcons were clearly counting on.

Whether Harrison was intended to be a major asset by season’s end or not, he’s arriving. Harrison was an impact run defender again this week and also piled up a pair of sacks, giving him all three of his career quarterback takedowns in the past two weeks. Atlanta really needed an infusion of young talent on the defensive front and still have a way to go there; Harrison turning into a really useful player definitely helps.

CB Clark Phillips: Full-time starter now

This week confirmed what we suspected: Phillips has taken over as the starter opposite A.J. Terrell. This game, he played nearly every snap and only allowed two catches on three targets for 24 yards, with three tackles and zero penalties for the first-time since he has seen game action in 2023.

Phillips has the requisite physicality and coverage instincts to excel in this league, and the early returns have been pretty promising for the rookie. Nielsen and company clearly loved him but waited until they had a chance to prove himself thanks to injury to install him as a starter; now, I’d anticipate he’ll open 2024 as one.

S DeMarcco Hellams: Full-time starter now

What a rise for Hellams. He turned heads over the spring and summer with his rock solid play in camp and preseason, but the opportunities were slow to come early on. With Jaylinn Hawkins’ release and Richie Grant slowly falling out of favor owing to his coverage struggles, Hellams had an opportunity to step in as a starter and now appears to be set there for the end of the season.

A capable player with a well-rounded skillset and terrific tackling, Hellams is a good fit for Ryan Nielsen’s defense and figures to at least compete for a starting job in 2024. His continued strong play at the end of the season ought to set him up nicely for just that.

G Jovaughn Gwyn: Inactive

The sole rookie not to play in 2023, Gwyn is going to compete with Ryan Neuzil and Kyle Hinton (among others) for a reserve role next year. The fact that the Falcons have kept him on the active roster all year hints at how strongly they feel he’ll be able to contribute, and we’ll hope they’re right.