Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: Secondary

Editor’s note: This is the sixth of an eight-part position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster. The rookies reported Tuesday for training camp. The veterans report July 25.

New Falcons assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray and secondary coach Steve Jackson have a combined 18 years of NFL playing experience and 42 years of NFL coaching experience.

The tandem will be charged with getting the secondary, which includes major free-agent pickup Jessie Bates III, to play at a high level in 2023.

“Having Jerry Gray and Steve Jackson back on the defense, people forget the wealth of knowledge that Steve and Jerry have,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Go back and look at those ‘07 and ‘08 (defensive back meeting) rooms that we had in Washington, we had some great players and vets.”

In 2007, Washington had Sean Taylor for nine games, Shawn Springs, Fred Smoot and LaRon Landry. In 2008, Chris Horton attempted to replace Taylor after his murder in November 2007.

“It’s like the players forget – Jerry can give references about defending Jerry Rice in the ‘80s or what Eric Dickerson was like,” Smith said. “They have so much knowledge. They’re great teachers and communicators.”

Jackson spent last season on Smith’s staff as an offensive assistant. Gray came over from the Green Bay Packers.

Jackson, a former third-round pick, played nine seasons (1991-99) in the NFL and has coached 18 seasons. Gray played nine seasons (1985-93) and was a four-time Pro Bowler. He has coached in the NFL for 26 years.

They played together with the old Houston Oilers in 1992 and have coached together in Buffalo, Washington and Tennessee.

“We have a lot of history together,” Jackson said. “He was defensive coordinator, and I was the nickels coach in Buffalo. We coached together in Washington … for four or five years. We have a long, long history.”

Jackson and Gray will lean on those times together as they try to fix the Falcons’ secondary.

“We’ve watched each other make a lot of plays together,” Jackson said. “We’ve (had) some great wins and some humiliating defeats. So, it teaches you, the adversity of going through all that stuff over the years, you know who you’re in the foxhole with.”

Jackson and Gray will attempt to instill a certain style of play.

“Attack and aggressive,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be an attacking defense, and it’s going to be an aggressive defense. If the ball is in the air, we’re going to go get it. If the ball is on the ground, we’re going to go get it. If the ball is being run, we’re going to get the tackle.”

Bates, who was with Jackson in Cincinnati, signed a four-year, $64 million deal in free agency. As the highest-paid safety in the league, he’ll be expected to anchor the secondary.

“Jessie has a lot of qualities that you look for to create a winning program,” Jackson said. “He’s got great leadership. Great production. ... He’s shown over the years that he understands and knows how to be successful.”

Jackson believes that Bates will help improve the communication and thereby reduce blown plays and broken coverages.

“He communicates and plays with confidence,” Jackson said. “We talk about the only way to be a winner is to win. His intention every play is to go out and win that play.”

Gray is expecting Bates to provide leadership to the secondary.

“Game-planning, meeting, getting guys together, being together,” Gray said. “That’s critical when you’re in the NFL. A lot of guys don’t understand the extra time that you need to be really good.”

The Falcons are hoping that cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Jeff Okudah, a former first-round pick (third overall) with the Lions, can turn into a tandem. Okudah was acquired in a trade for a fifth-round pick.

“The thing is that A.J. did a great job in his second year being an All-Pro,” Gray said. “Now, we’ve got to get Jeff to do the same thing that he was doing at Ohio State. So, you’ve got two competitors.”

The Falcons are trying to revive Okudah and cornerback Mike Hughes, another former first-round pick.

“They’ve done what they’ve done in the past,” Jackson said. “Now, that they are here, they are part of this organization. They came here to win. They’ve got the ability to do it. It’s creating and putting them in the right environment to do it.”

The Falcons also are high on fourth-round pick Clark Phillips II, who will compete with Hughes for the nickel spot.

“He’s a football player,” Jackson said. “He was productive in college. I’m sure he’ll be productive here.”

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC

Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:

Part 1: Running backs

Part 2: Offensive line

Part 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

Part 4: Defensive line

Part 5: Linebackers

Part 6: Secondary

Part 7: Special teams

Part 8: Quarterbacks

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The AJC’s projected depth chart

OFFENSE

QB – Desmond Ridder, Taylor Heinicke, Logan Woodside

RB – Tyler Allgeier, Bijan Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson, *Caleb Huntley, Carlos Washington Jr.

FB – Keith Smith, Clint Ratkovich

WR – Drake London, KhaDarel Hodge, Frank Darby, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Chris Blair

TE – *Kyle Pitts, Jonnu Smith, Parker Hesse, Feleipe Franks, *John FitzPatrick, Tucker Fisk

LT – Jake Matthews, Barry Wesley

LG – Matt Hennessy, Kyle Hinton, Matthew Bergeron, *Jalen Mayfield, *Justin Shaffer

C – Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil, Jonotthan Harrison, Jovaughn Gwyn

RG – Chris Lindstrom, Jovaughn Gwyn

RT – Kaleb McGary, Tyler Vrabel, Joshua Miles, Ethan Greenidge

WR – Mack Hollins, Scotty Miller, Slade Bolden, Josh Ali, Keilahn Harris, Xavier Malone

DEFENSE

OLB – Lorenzo Carter, Bud Dupree, DeAngelo Malone

DE – Grady Jarrett, Timothy Horne, LeCale London

NT – Eddie Goldman, *Ta’Quon Graham, Carlos Davis

DE – David Onyemata, Joe Gaziano, Ikenna Enechukwu, Albert Huggins

OLB – Calais Campbell, Ade Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie, Zach Harrison

ILB – Kaden Elliss, Dorian Etheridge, Tae Davis, Andre Smith Jr.

ILB – Troy Andersen, Mykal Walker, Nate Landman, Mike Jones Jr.

CB – A.J. Terrell, Mike Hughes, Clark Phillips III, Breon Borders, Natrone Brooks

FS – Jessie Bates III, Jaylinn Hawkins, Micah Abernathy, Lukas Denis

SS – Richie Grant, DeMarcco Hellams, Clifford Chattman

CB – Jeff Okudah, Cornell Armstrong, Tre Flowers, Dee Alford, Darren Hall

NB – Mike Hughes, Clark Phillips III, Dee Alford

SPECIAL TEAMS

K – Younghoe Koo, Matthew Trickett

P/H – Bradley Pinion

LS – Liam McCullough

PR – Mike Hughes, Dee Alford, Penny Hart and Josh Ali.

KOR – Cordarrelle Patterson. Carlos Washington Jr.

Note: Players who ended the season on injured reserve have an asterisk.

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