The Atlanta Falcons have enjoyed some excellent safety play throughout their history, and Jessie Bates has a chance to one day join that list of impact players. The crown jewel of Atlanta’s free agency class, Bates has the versatility, play-making instincts and leadership qualities to help transform the defense.
Bates leads a group that struggled to consistently makes plays last season and returns starters Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins. Grant, a former second-round pick, figures to be the frontrunner for the second starting role, but Hawkins has a nose for the football and should have a role. Then there’s the question of who else the team keeps as depth.
Here’s a closer look at Atlanta’s safety position as OTAs get underway.
Starters: Jessie Bates, Richie Grant
After playing under 300 snaps as a rookie in 2021, Grant stepped into a full-time starting role in his second year and led all Falcons players with 1,117 snaps. Now, Grant took his share of lumps last season, but he had some truly excellent performances and did nothing to put his job in jeopardy. Playing next to Bates should take a lot of pressure off of Grant, whose future in this league still looks bright.
But let’s not kid ourselves, this is the Bates show.
One of the most productive safeties of the last five years, Bates has started 79 games with 43 pass defenses and 14 interceptions since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2018. Bates has started seven playoff games in the last two seasons, including the Super Bowl after the 2021 season. The highest-graded safety by PFF in 2020, Bates will be an immediate asset in both pass coverage and run defense for Atlanta. There’s no bigger offseason arrival on the defensive side of the ball than Bates.
Key reserves: Jaylinn Hawkins, DeMarcco Hellams
On the one hand, Hawkins is a very valuable depth piece who has proven he can start for stretches if needed. On the other, there’s really no proven option beyond Hawkins, who played 955 snaps for Atlanta last season. Entering his fourth season, Hawkins is likely to end up as Bates’s understudy after registering 84 tackles, six pass defenses and two interceptions last year. He should benefit from working with Bates in such close proximity, but it’s unclear where Hawkins’s path goes from here. He will also be a 2024 free agent, so his performance this year will count for a lot.
Hellams was one of the team’s two seventh-round draft picks in April. There’s no guarantee that a player selected that late even makes the roster, but Hellams played a lot of football at Alabama and should be ready to hit the ground running. Following the selection, Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot praised his versatility and special teams acumen. It’s on special teams that Hellams will likely make his mark initially, and he has standout potential in that area.
Roster hopefuls: Micah Abernathy, Clifford Chattman
Special teams are going to be the primary way that Abernathy or Chattman crack this roster. Abernathy was signed off the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad late in the 2022 season, so the Falcons had at least enough interest to give him a spot on the active roster for two games last year. Both have multiple seasons of SEC experience, which is becoming a bit of a theme for Atlanta with its depth pieces.
Chattman has experience playing both cornerback and safety, and he could also get a look at the nickel role for the Falcons. Across his college career, which was spent with both the Aggies and UTSA Roadrunners, Chattman recorded 125 tackles, 27 pass defenses and six interceptions.
Outlook: Good things are ahead (hopefully)
Betting on Bates is a wise move. He’s been extremely durable throughout his career, and he’s been a key leader for one of the best teams in the AFC. If there’s a player who can really help change the culture of the Falcons’ defense, it should be him. Bates also helps mitigate a little of the team’s depth concerns at the position, which might be slightly overblown in the first place.
Grant is the true X-factor here. If he takes another jump and continues to climb toward the potential that made him a high draft pick, the Falcons can employ their safeties in a creative fashion. The skillset is there, but Grant has a tendency to freelance, one which has gotten him in trouble at times. It will be very interesting to see what the team does with Hawkins. Is he more of a sixth man off the bench and a key rotation piece, or will the Falcons lean on their starters and keep him in the reserves?
All told, the decision to bring in Bates should be enough to elevate this unit beyond anything we’ve seen in a while at the safety position. The Falcons haven’t had exceptionally poor safety play over the last decade, but Bates brings a dynamism to the position that has been lacking. If that decision pays off, it will have a ripple effect for Atlanta across not just the secondary, but the entire defense.