Updated: Jun 28
Waking up to a dejected, damp dreariness felt appropriate. Roughly 364 days until we do it again in Detroit for the 2024 NFL Draft, but who’s counting? I’m not crazy (Yes, I started the 2024 tape.) The 2023 NFL Draft raised the standard of reality show sports and additionally embellished the chaotic narratives derived throughout the pre-Draft process.
Specifically looking at the Atlanta Falcons, Head Coach Arthur Smith and General Manager Terry Fontenot needed to keep putting the Brinks truck in reverse and cashing in after a busy Free Agency full steam ahead into another critical NFL Draft for a team looking to take the next step in a wide-open NFC South. Let’s go pick-by-pick with some thoughts on the Dirty Birds’ efforts: good, bad, or ugly.
Bijan Robinson - 5’11 - 215lbs - RB Texas, Eighth Overall, First Round
Even if you’re in the “No First Round NFL Draft running back” crowd, give props to decision-makers for taking the fun pick, a guy recognized league-wide. Bijan is already in an elite group of cool cats recognizable by one name: Brady, Beyonce, Bono, Bijan.
Atlanta has not had that since Julio in terms of popularity contests. I’ll say, I had my eye on Jalen Carter, with Bijan and Christian Gonzalez as my 2a/2b options. I anticipated Bijan. I bet on Bijan. In hindsight, Bijan was always Smith and Fontenot’s man, and understandably so.
Where does a team ranked third last year in rushing attack go with adding the top offensive playmaker taken? To quote ESPN Analyst Todd McShay, “He is my No. 2 prospect and brings a whole new element to the Falcons’ offense with his power, pass-game traits and contact balance.
He’s one of the best running backs I’ve evaluated in the past decade, and with Atlanta’s run-heavy scheme, he could really dominate right out of the gate.” The Dirty Birds led the NFL in rushing attempts, adding Bijan to Smith’s run-first identity will leave tread on second-year Tyler Allgeier’s tires and offer aging Cordarrelle Patterson more versatility at receiver.
Adding Bijan’s receiving abilities to a wide receiver room third cheapest in the NFL and a coach’s scheme that does not emphasize WR2 resources brings even more overlooked value. I have never seen Arthur Smith smile this much.
Matthew Bergeron – 6’5, 322 lbs – Offensive Guard – Syracuse – 38th Overall, Second Round
I’d like to pull from a past feature I did on Bergeron: “Bergeron is an excellent tackle (his perceived first position) but can be a great guard (his perceived second position). I view him as OT8 but would consider him in the OG3-5 range” and later adding, “Bergeron would leave a run-heavy scheme team like the Atlanta Falcons want to dial the phone real fast on Day Two.”
Well, the Falcons dialed so fast that they traded a fourth-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to go up six spots and get their guy. Bergeron was discussed in league circles as a potential sneak into the bottom of Round One, in particular the Cincinnati Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys.
While some were apprehensive to part with the 110th pick to move up, the Falcons had to do it. This regime didn’t invest what would be a fourth First Round NFL Draft pick on an offensive lineman (Jake Matthews, Kaleb McGary, Chris Lindstrom), but a second-rounder lines up with the timeline and investment in this line under contract through 2024.
Don’t fret about a kick inside for Bergeron, this perfect fit is the starting solution at left guard.
Zach Harrison – 6’6, 274 lbs – Edge – Ohio State – 75th Overall, Third Round
Defensive Coordinator Ryan Nielsen had to be at the forefront of this pick, Harrison too closely mirrors Nielsen’s template edge defender: extended arm length and high-end size. Saints legend Cam Jordan is the perspective template of Nielsen’s preferences.
Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree will headline the veteran leadership for Harrison in that edge room and offer time to develop. I view Harrison as a slight, slight reach at 75th overall, just because there were more ready-to-go now players available.
For example, the linebacker run that followed Harrison that included Daiyan Henley (Chargers), Trenton Simpson (Ravens), DeMarvion Overshown (Cowboys), and Dorian Williams (Bills).
All that to say, I also recognize Harrison’s high ceiling/high floor and the staff looking to develop the defensive line for years to come, not just right now fresh off a hot Free Agency. As I said, a baby NFL Draft reach, I completely get this one.
I could be laughing at myself for claiming a slight reach three years from now, I hope so. Harrison’s best football came down Ohio State’s National Title attempt stretch, there’s no better person than Ryan Nielsen to keep it going.
Clark Phillips III – 5’9, 184 lbs – Cornerback – Utah – 113th Overall, Fourth Round
Pound for pound, Phillips is the best Falcons pick of the 2023 NFL Draft. Atlanta got a full round’s value on Phillips. For people who think Harrison was a slight reach, I would have been happy with Phillips III at Pick 75, let alone Pick 113.
Overly knocked down boards due to lack of optimal height, Phillips has the production, intangibles, work ethic, concept recognition, ball skills, etc. to go Day Two, he’s just an inch or two shorter than “optimal.”
Otherwise, Phillips would be closer to where Brian Branch was selected at Pick 48. Mike Hughes might man the starting nickel spot this year with Phillips being the lead rotator, but it will not last: Phillips is your starting nickel cornerback by Year Two at the absolute latest. I think Phillips takes it over this year.
DeMarcco Hellams – 6’1, 203 lbs – Safety – Alabama – 224th Overall, Seventh Round
“Hitman’ is going to find a spot on special teams. For this reason, this is a good pick in the seventh round of the NFL Draft, on top of Hellams being capable of getting the fourth safety spot behind Jessie Bates, Richie Grant, and Jaylinn Hawkins. Never sneeze at a guy who led the Crimson Tide in tackles.
Jovaughn Gwyn – 6’2, 297 lbs – IOL – South Carolina – 225th Overall, Seventh Round
Gwyn offers SEC experience at guard and center. That said, I thought Mel Kiper Jr. summed it up nicely describing Gwyn as a “career overachiever in the SEC.”
Translation: Gwyn was a reach and has maxed out his physical skills with his intangibles, health, attitude, and things of that nature, more so versus physical skillset. Maybe there is mileage to be had for a second- team All-SEC selection this past year.
I imagine Gywn more as a final roster selection/versatile rotational depth body or practice squad player than a major contributor. Better players were on the NFL Draft board, even at the offensive guard position, such as Andrew Vorhees (Ravens) and Nick Broeker (Bills).
Bonus: Jeff Okudah (5th Round Pick Trade) & Jonnu Smith (5th Round Pick Trade)
I mention these two to explain the long gap in picks on Day Three of the 2023 NFL Draft. Okudah and Jonnu are “A” players for 2x fifth-round NFL Draft capital. That should be considered when grading this Draft class. It won’t, but it should.
Overall it looks like the Falcons got two immediate starters (Bijan and Bergeron), a potential year one starter/definite year two starter (Phillips) who will contribute in rotation with Mike Hughes in 2023.
A developmental rotational player with a focus down the road in a year or two (Harrison), a rotational safety and special teams starter (Hellams), and a potential roster spot versatile rotational lineman (Gwyn) and lastly, the additions of Jeff Okudah and Jonnu Smith. For six NFL Draft picks, that grades out as a B+/A- class, probably in the 10-12 range in comparison to other teams.