The 2023 NFL Draft has wrapped up, and while we’re just starting to think about how the rookies are going to fit on this Falcons football team, we’re thinking about it a lot. That makes it a fine time to deliver a few takeaways from that draft class.
Three of our writers—hey, one of them was me!—weighed in on this draft class with thoughts on what worked for us, what didn’t work, and the best pick. What you’ll find is that there was a pretty clear consensus among the three of us about the quality of the class and the best pick, in particular. Let us know if you agree.
What worked for me: The focus on long-term needs. It may sound odd to say that in a year where the Falcons drafted a running back with their first selection, given the fierce and never-ending arguments over first round RB value, but I thought the team did a nice job of snagging players who might be long-term starters at positions of need. Matthew Bergeron is the best example of this—he’ll likely start at left guard throughout his rookie contract, if all goes well—but Zach Harrison and Clark Phillips could be starters at EDGE and cornerback, respectively. Hell, even seventh round picks DeMarcco Hellams and Jovaughn Gwyn fit long-term needs as reserves at safety and center. I need to see whether Harrison and Phillips pan out and whether the Falcons can integrate Robinson into their offense in a way that takes full advantage of his talents, but overall it was hard to dislike this lean class.
What didn’t work for me: The lack of a receiver. I thought this was a class that, while not at all top-heavy, offered some interesting value later on for a team that just doesn’t have their wide receiver group settled for 2023, much less the long haul. It’s a relatively minor quibble the Falcons can fix for now in free agency or if one of their UDFAs hits, but seeing the Falcons come away with a potential significant contributor at the position would’ve made me feel even better about the offense heading into this season.
Best pick: Phillips might be my favorite as a really talented, smart, and driven cornerback who has experience inside and outside and is a legitimate ballhawk. The Falcons don’t have to rush him into starting, but he can start, and what’s more I’d expect him to be a very good player when he does. Robinson should be special and Bergeron will be at least a quality starting guard, but I think Phillips has underrated upside for a secondary that still needs playmakers.
What worked for me: This team has a very clear and established identity and they are fully leaning into it, both when it comes to on the field during the season and in the war room during the draft. On the field, they will run the ball at you and will not care one bit if you know it’s coming. They took the number three rushing offense from a year ago, and added the best running back in the draft to it in Bijan Robinson as well as a gifted run blocker who will slot in at starting left guard in Matthew Bergeron. In the war room, they stuck to their best player available philosophy in the first round to land a generational talent, took another swing on a developmental pass rusher with a high ceiling on Day 2, added what we hope will be a special teams contributor in the final rounds and gave focus on high RAS scores when it came to their most important picks (9.85 for Robinson; 9.82 for Bergeron; 8.71 for Zach Harrison). Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith have a clear vision and plan, and that’s not something we’ve been able to say about this franchise very much over the past few decades.
What didn’t work for me: Honestly, I really liked this draft so I won’t complain too much, but my primary nitpick has to do with sacrificing a fourth rounder to move up in the second round when there was a lot of value on the table, enough for it to be worth the wait. In the end, the best safety in the class, Brian Branch was there at 44 and would have been a dream pick. Keion White out of Georgia Tech was also there and would have represented wonderful value. The team traded pick 110 (which became Adetomiwa Adebawore, who would have been a home run at that selection) to move from 44 to 38 so that they could select Bergeron. Still, if Bergeron was the guy for the braintrust, I can’t complain too much about being aggressive in the pursuit of his services.
Best Pick: I know it’s boring and unoriginal to echo Dave here, but it really just has to be Clark Phillips III. Phillips was a unanimous All-American and finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation’s best CB in 2022. He has all of the instincts, tools and drive to be a very successful CB in this league and he had no business falling to the fourth round, but teams really were just that scared off by his height (5’9) and the Falcons took advantage. He projects to be a long term starter as a slot corner, who has plenty of experience in playing the outside as well. This is giving me some shades of Grady Jarrett falling to the fifth round due to his height. We instantly knew we had a steal on our hands right away.
What worked for me: The Falcons made a clear commitment to bolstering the offense with the selections of Bijan Robinson and Matthew Bergeron at the top. I think those two picks have the potential to become foundational pieces moving forward, and that gives me a lot of hope for this team’s ability to compete in a weak NFC South. Atlanta took arguably the weakest spot on offense (left guard) and fortified it with a high-upside player who should give you immediate impact play as a run blocker while he continues to develop as a pass blocker.
With pick 8, Atlanta added one of the only star players available in this class. Bijan isn’t just a running back, and Arthur Smith is going to prove that with his usage this year. Now the Falcons can lean on three legitimate top talents on offense and make life very difficult for opposing defenses.
On the defensive side, I think the Clark Phillips III pick has the potential to be a home run. This is a player who had fringe first-round tape and had good games against NFL competition like Drake London and Jordan Addison at 5’9, 185. I would not bet against Phillips finding his way into the starting lineup to start the year, but even as CB4 he’ll be a big boost to the depth.
What didn’t work for me: There wasn’t really anything in this draft that bugged me in a big way, all the picks made sense. Zach Harrison wasn’t my favorite player on the board at 75 (I had Adetomiwa Adebawore at lot higher), but he clearly fits the prototype that Ryan Nielsen is looking for at EDGE. The Falcons needed to get bigger and stronger up front, and Harrison accomplishes that. It’s definitely nitpicking, but I’d have probably preferred securing a priority UDFA target at WR like Bryce Ford-Wheaton over another interior offensive lineman in Jovaughn Gwyn. I like what I’ve seen of Gwyn so far, but it’s going to be really difficult for him to make the roster.
Best pick: If we’re not counting Bijan—because it’s a little too obvious—then I have to go with Clark Phillips III. Everything I said above applies. To continue to elaborate, though, I wouldn’t rule out Phillips playing on the outside in certain matchups. Obviously, putting him up against Mike Evans is a bad idea, but he can absolutely handle all but the biggest guys. His transition to the slot will take some time, as he didn’t play inside much in college. Still, he’s high-level depth at worst and I firmly believe he’ll end the 2023 season as a starter.