The Falcons put together their smallest draft class thus far under Terry Fontenot’s front office in 2023, selecting six players they hope will be major contributors for this team both now and in the future. How many of those players will play key roles this season?
The answer is probably not all of them. The Falcons have made it clear that this will be a more difficult team to make in 2023, owing to significant investments in free agency and two fairly deep draft classes already vying for roles in Atlanta. Still, the likelihood that most of those six players will have at least small roles on the active roster this year seems quite high.
With training camp not all that far away and some of the early minicamp work already complete, let’s talk about what those roles might be.
RB Bijan Robinson: Starter sharing touches with Tyler Allgeier
It’ll be a two-headed backfield, with the only real question concerning who will get more carries and touches in the end. Robinson will be a featured piece of the offense because of his sky-high potential as a game-changing talent, with his floor probably sitting at something like 250 combined touches.
The degree to which Atlanta follows through on their pledge to use him everywhere, both as a receiver and a runner, will determine what the split for those touches will be. Ultimately he’ll be one of the team’s more vital and exciting weapons on offense regardless, and his ability to wreak havoc with those carries and catches make him an early favorite for Rookie of the Year in 2023.
G Matthew Bergeron: Likely starter at left guard
Matt Hennessy will have the early leg up as the veteran, but I expect that advantage to fade as the summer sun grows hotter. Bergeron has the nasty streak and ability to blossom into a dominant run blocking guard in the NFL, a skillset that makes him an ideal fit for an offense that loves to (and will) run the ball early and often. So long as he’s not a total liability in pass protection, Bergeron should be able to edge out the versatile Hennessy, who will settle into a reserve role.
Once he grabs hold of that role, the hope in Atlanta is that Bergeron won’t let it go again. Given that the team drafted him early and immediately talked him up as being in the competition at left guard, I’d give him an excellent chance of seizing the job this summer.
EDGE Zach Harrison: Rotational pass rusher
Harrison is a player the Falcons have all but admitted could use some time and work in the pros, and with the additions to the defense this spring, there won’t be any need to rush him into a major role if you assume (or hope) good health for veterans like Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree.
He will still have a role, likely a small one at first that could grow if he excels. Think DeAngelo Malone’s 10-15 snaps per game a year ago as the floor for Harrison’s 2023 work in Atlanta. Like many other players on this list of draft choices, Atlanta will be envisioning bigger and brighter things for Harrison in 2024.
CB Clark Phillips: Versatile reserve
I’ve gone back and forth on whether Phillips can win the starting nickel cornerback job. With the always underrated Dee Alford and veteran Mike Hughes also vying for that role, I think I’ve landed on Phillips spending the 2023 season as a backup rather than a starter.
That’s not something the Falcons will mind, given that Phillips can and will likely back up more than one spot, and given that he has the talent and ball skills to make a year one impact even in limited opportunities. Long-term, he will be this team’s starting nickel, but the team may not need him to be this year.
S DeMarcco Hellams: Special teamer and reserve
Hellams feels like a likely roster addition in 2023. The Falcons’ depth at safety is far more shallow than it is at cornerback, and crucially Hellams brings both versatility and special teams value to the table for Atlanta. At Alabama, he played multiple roles at both safety and cornerback, and he’ll be a fine addition to a special teams group that has been a true team strength the past two seasons under Marquice Williams.
You have to be able to do more than one thing well and excel in the third phase to make the team as a seventh round rookie, and the team’s relative lack of safety depth and Hellams’ ability to check those boxes will work in his favor.
G/C Jovaughn Gwyn: Roster hopeful
Gwyn is a player I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand. Atlanta appears to be content to roll with Drew Dalman at center for at least the short term, but long-term they don’t have a lot of settled depth on the interior, and Gwyn’s college experience at guard and cross-training at center should help him latch on as depth if he looks good this summer.
That said, there’s a bit of a numbers crunch to come with Matt Hennessy likely locked into a spot, Jalen Mayfield pushing for one, and several veterans vying for roles, so Gwyn will have to be excellent to ensure a roster spot is his. The likelier scenario is that he spends the year on the practice squad and settles in as a key reserve in 2024 after a season of growth and time practicing at center.