Lofty expectations for late round picks and undrafted free agents often come with a price tag, and that price you pay for summer hype and big belief is the heavy coin of disappointment. Over the years, we’ve gotten excited for late round pass rushers, undrafted Atlanta Falcons free agent wide receivers, and the occasional offensive lineman with a great name, but rarely does our excitement translate into roles and results.
DeMarcco Hellams will go down as an exception, no matter what his career holds from here. A hard-hitting safety out of Alabama, Hellams arrived as an intriguing seventh round selection in Atlanta and then proceeded to capture hearts and minds with an impressive training camp and preseason. It would have been easy to chalk that up as a flash in the pan instead of a sign of things to come, but I optimistically projected that Hellams might carve out a role as the team’s third safety late in the year or early in 2024. A major role on special teams was assured, either way.
Instead, Hellams finished the 2023 season as a starter at safety opposite Jessie Bates, having overtaken Richie Grant and his notorious coverage misadventures. That was a meteoric rise for Hellams, and it positions him to compete for a starting role next year even with a new defensive coordinator on the way.
Let’s take a look back at how Hellams got here and his outlook for next season.
15 games played with 4 starts
40 combined tackles, 3 missed tackles (7% missed rate)
1 tackle for a loss, 1 pressure
13/19 passes (68.4%) against for 115 yards
6 special teams tackles
65.2 Pro Football Focus grade
It’s hard to remember this now, but Hellams was actually the fourth safety coming in to the year, and even that role was not guaranteed. Hellams was competing with Micah Abernathy for that role, and while there were many of us optimistic about his outlook, it was not sure thing he’d hook onto a roster spot.
Strong practices in training camp helped, but Hellams really turned heads in preseason. Over the first two preseason games, Hellams had a pair of picks, multiple pass deflections, and a bunch of tackles that showcased his reliability and physicality. That strong performance and his known special teams value dating back to his days at Alabama helped him win the fourth safety job, behind starters Jessie Bates and Richie Grant and veteran reserve Jaylinn Hawkins.
Hellams was a core special teamer right away, but he didn’t play at all on defense over the first three weeks of the season. The Falcons started geting a look at him on defense after that, and it wasn’t long before they made the surprising choice to cut Hawkins, opening up the third safety role for Hellams. Starting in Week 11 with Grant’s coverage scuffles mounting and the team’s appreciation for Hellams becoming evident, he split snaps with Grant and eventually overtook him as the starter opposite Bates. There were rookie growing pains, as you’d expect, but Hellams also had lights out effort against the Saints in Week 12 (three run stops, six tackles, just 11 yards allowed in coverage) and Carolina (seven tackles, another three run stops, 11 yards allowed again through the air). He unfortunately missed the final week of the season with an injury, but over his run as a starter, Hellams showed he can be a force for good against the run and less of a liability in coverage out of the gate than we might have anticipated.
Losing his defensive coordinator makes his outlook uncertain, as we’ll get to in a moment, but Hellams put more than enough out there for the next staff to appreciate.
It’s to be determined, largely because we don’t know who the defensive coordinator will be just yet. But I do feel confident in saying two things:
- Hellams will be a core special teamer, given that he’s a beyond solid tackler and was second on the team in special teams tackles in 2023;
- Hellams will have a role on defense, as well.
There’s a world in which a new coordinator and new staff want to add a top-flight starting safety to pair with Jessie Bates, which pushes Hellams into a third safety role (or fourth, if the new staff likes Richie Grant). But having proven that he can be at least a solid fill-in starter and carrying the special teams value he does, Hellams should be considered a roster lock even under a new staff. Depending on who is hired, Hellams could even stick as a starter, but I’m not anticipating that just yet.
Regardless, Hellams looks like a fairly rare late round success story, delivering rock solid play for a Falcons team that needed it and seizing a starting job in his rookie season. He has shown he has the ability and work ethic to be a long-term asset for this Falcons defense, and my hope is that we see Hellams with a significant role again in 2024.