Jessie Bates is fine with the Falcons’ secondary plan

Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III (3) scored a touchdown after intercepting a New Orleans Saints pass during the first half of a NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints in Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023.   (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Atlanta Falcons safety Jessie Bates III (3) scored a touchdown after intercepting a New Orleans Saints pass during the first half of a NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints in Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ pass defense ranked in the lower half of the league last season, but the team did not address the secondary in the NFL draft last week.

“We feel good about our secondary,” Falcons assistant general manager Kyle Smith said Tuesday. “Obviously, we are going to look and continue to add at every positions. We’ve got a lot of guys that have played and have started.”

The Falcons gave up 207.3 yards passing per game, which ranked 22nd in the league. The interception rate was 3.21%, 28th in the league.

“First of all, we’ll definitely continue to look at (cornerback),” Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said. “Once the draft ends, we’re still going, whether we’re talking about a possible trade, whether we’re talking about signing another player and that goes right up into the season. We’re always going to look at opportunities.”

The Falcons signed three undrafted free-agent cornerbacks in Jayden Price, Anthony Sao and Trey Vaval.

“That is a position we would have liked to add (to),” Fontenot said. “And yet you don’t want to force (and) reach or do something that you shouldn’t. So, we had guys that obviously we’re trying to get back in the first. It could have been a corner. Then you continue to go through the draft, and it just depends.”

In free agency, the Falcons signed cornerback Antonio Hamilton, who’s set to enter his ninth season, but started only 19 games. They also signed former Green Bay starter Kevin King, who has not played since 2021.

“He brought in Hamilton and King for us to add to our roster and do different things,” Falcons coach Raheem Morris said. “He’s also had A.J. Terrell here. We also have Clark (Phillips). We also have (Mike) Hughes. We also have (Dee) Alford playing inside for us. All those guys, (Natrone) Brooks, that can contribute. We feel really good about a lot of those things. We didn’t add anybody within this draft structure.”

Safety Jessie Bates III, who will be in his second season with the Falcons, and cornerback Terrell lead the secondary. One of the highlights of the 2023 season was Bates’ 92-yard interception return against the Saints that fueled a 24-15 win Nov. 26.

Bates finished the season with a career-high six interceptions and was named to the Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-Pro selection.

“I thought last year, those guys did a really good job,” Bates said. “They were almost thrown in the fire at times, and I thought they responded really well. But this is a new year.”

Bates believes that all of the spots are open.

“No matter if you’re a practice-squad player, no matter if you’re a Pro Bowl player, this is a new year,” Bates said. “You have to reset goals. Kind of humble yourself. Don’t forget the dog that you’ve got in you.”

Bates was elated that assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray was retained by Morris.

“It’s always good to have someone with a familiar face, especially with a guy like Coach O.G. (original gangster),” Bates said. “Coach Gray, or whatever you want to call him. Just having him in there explaining everything. Coverages don’t change much. It’s more terminology and stuff. This is what we played last year.”

Terrell did not have an interception, but the Falcons were pleased with his play. He had a 93.2 passer rating when thrown at and gave up four touchdowns, according to Pro Football Reference.

The Falcons were hoping that Bates would pair well with Richie Grant and form a dynamic tandem on the defense. Grant struggled, especially covering tight ends, and ended up being moved to nickel/dime back. DeMarcco Hellams started the final four games at safety.

Quarterbacks had a 126.6 passer rating when throwing at Grant, while Bates had a 67.1 rating, according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced statistics.

The Falcons let Jeff Okudah leave in free agency. He signed with the Texans. Phillips closed the season as the starter opposite Terrell. Alford started the season as the nickel back. Hughes finished the season at the spot and played well.

The Falcons picked up Terrell’s $12.34 million fifth-year option for next season and could offer a long-term deal like they did Chris Lindstrom last season.

Smith noted that Hamilton and King have been starters in the league, both inside and outside.

“He’s coming off of injuries, but he’ll get an opportunity to compete,” Smith said of King. “Clark did some really good things inside and outside. Dee and Hughes. We’ve got guys, veterans who have played. It’s not new to them.”

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