In 2022, the Atlanta Falcons endured a lackluster season, entering with the 22nd ranked secondary, according to Pro Football Focus. Recognizing the need for improvement, the Falcons made strategic moves in free agency, bolstering their secondary with experienced players. However, it is the addition of rookie draft pick Clark Phillips III that brings a fresh spark of excitement to the team this season that is likely to turn some heads pretty quickly, making him the best rookie sleeper to make an impact.

Undervalued talent and draft day steal

Clark Phillips III, a standout defender during his college career at Utah, was projected to be selected in the second or third round of the 2023 NFL Draft. However, he fell to the fourth round, making him an undeniable steal for the Falcons. He fell because of his smaller stature. Standing at 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, Phillips isn't the prototypical size of an NFL corner.

Despite concerns about his smaller size, Phillips's remarkable performance and accolades, including being a unanimous All-American and the AP Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, make him an undeniable talent that should adapt quickly in the NFL. His ability to overcome height-related doubts throughout his football career has only fueled his motivation to excel in the NFL.

“He was another fun player to watch on tape,” former NFL general manager Rick Spielman told “He has unique ball skills. For a small corner, he played outside in the Pac-12 and did a phenomenal job covering those receivers. He's tough, he's gritty, he'll come up and support. Where he fell is because he didn't run fast enough at the Combine. When you've got a small corner that's quicker than fast, automatically as a general manager or a scout, you're going to put him in as a nickel. The way he plays the game – how smart and how intelligent he is, he's going to be a starter in the nickel for them.”

Addressing a crucial need

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With the acquisition of Phillips, the Falcons are addressing a crucial need in their revamped secondary. Despite signing notable free agents, Atlanta recognized the importance of adding more skilled players to bolster their defensive backfield. Phillips' style of play, characterized by physical and sticky coverage on underneath routes, aligns perfectly with new Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen's scheme. His presence in the slot position provides the Falcons with a versatile and reliable defender who can disrupt passing lanes and contribute to generating turnovers—which would be a significant area of improvement for the Falcons.

A competitive mindset

Phillips' journey from being a highly recruited player to a fourth-round draft pick has fostered a competitive mindset that sets him apart. Undeterred by his size limitations, he approaches the game with an unwavering determination where his passion and heart far outweigh any shortcomings. With his doubters, Phillips arrives in Atlanta with a chip on his shoulder, ready to prove his worth and make an immediate impact, per

Phillips' preparation, study habits, and intangibles impressed the Falcons coaching staff greatly throughout the pre-draft process. His confidence, competitiveness, intelligence, and passion for the game shine through in both his words and actions. As he steps onto the field, Phillips embraces the challenge of facing larger receivers and relishes the opportunity to perform against them at the highest level.

In 2023, the Atlanta Falcons' defense aims to rise up (pun intended) from its 22nd ranked position and establish itself as a formidable unit. Phillips, representing a key piece to this franchise's future in the midst of revamping this part of the team, might be why he will be the rookie sleeper. Between his physicality and mentality, Phillips is poised to make an immediate impact on the Falcons' secondary and push this team forward as a competitive force in the NFC South.

The Falcons have found a hidden gem in Phillips, a player who will undoubtedly prove himself as a valuable asset in the upcoming season and beyond.