When the Falcons selected Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, they got two starting linebackers versatile enough to play well against the run and pass. With the emergence of Foye Oluokun as a rookie in 2018, the Falcons may have a really intriguing linebacker trio.
Oluokun was listed as a second-team linebacker behind starting SAM De'Vondre Campbell, but the Falcons only list two linebacker spots on their depth chart so that might not be reading into too much. When they are in a 4-3 package, Oluokun is certain to have some role in the rotation.
"He's going to play," linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. "Whether he starts or not, we'll see. A lot has to be worked out as this camp goes. But he's going to play. He can play the MIKE, he can play the WILL, he can play the SAM, he could probably play safety in a pinch. We're going to find a way to utilize him."
A sixth-round pick in 2018, Oluokun came out of Yale transitioning from safety to a linebacker with the Falcons. Not only does Oluokun possess 4.48 speed, but he plays much bigger than his 6-foot-2, 215-pound designation would indication.
After taking on a bigger role in the wake of Deion Jones being placed on injured reserve, Oluokun steadily improved throughout the season. He finished second on the team with 89 tackles despite starting in just seven games, and he had 49 tackles during the final seven weeks of the season.
As with any player, let along someone making the transition from the Ivy League to the NFL, the growing process does not happen entirely in Year 1. The reps that Oluokun received as a rookie were undoubtedly important, just as they were for Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell in 2016, but he is still improving on the finer points of being an NFL linebacker in today's game.
"We've seen tremendous growth," Ulbrich said. "These guys that play as rookies, every day is brand new. There's so many looks and concepts and principles that every game it's something that they've never heard of. He was just collecting this immense database of information as the season went, and you saw weekly improvement."
The ability to cover has become ever more important for linebackers. No longer are teams looking for big run-stuffers at the second level and relying on a couple of sub-package linebackers to come in on obvious passing downs. The best linebackers in the game can do it all.
Oluokun showed flashes during his rookie season of being a really solid player in coverage. One play stands out in my mind when I think about Oluokun's first year and reasons for optimism.
It occurred on a second-and-10 late in the very first half against Green Bay. The Packers ran veteran tight end Jimmy Graham down the field on a seam route, which the Falcons were susceptible to while he was with the Saints. Oluokun trailed Graham downfield but remained in position to make the play. When the ball was thrown, Oluokun didn't panic and grab the tight end or make a move too early to draw a flag, and he also did not allow himself to be outmuscled by the former basketball player. He simply timed up his swat and knocked the ball free, preventing a huge momentum play.
"I was running, and I'm like, 'I don't even think I'm supposed to be running this far,'" Oluokun said. "I'm like, 'Where's my safety help?' The safety was occupied by a different route so I'm like, 'I guess this is us.' Then he turned and it's like, 'OK the ball must be coming to us.'
"I'm in trail position and this is Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Graham. Then he turned and looked for the ball, and I thought, 'OK, the ball is here.' So I turned and the ball really was right there; I just batted it down and made the play."
It's true that this is not the same Graham who tortured the Falcons while he was with New Orleans, but Oluokun's poise to stay in position and carry an athletic tight end about 60 yards downfield is nonetheless impressive.
Now, heading into his second season, Oluokun can continue to become an impact player on a defense that has a few of those players already. Pro Football Focus gave Oluokun a 64.6 overall grade last season, which is comparable to Roquan Smith, who was the first linebacker off the board in 2018 and earned a 67.4 overall grade.
Oluokun's path to the NFL was far different than Smith's who became a college football star at Georgia, but they have the same type of skills that are needed to succeed as a linebacker today. That Oluokun was able to swim when thrust into the deep end early in the season is one of the true bright spots of the 2018 season for Atlanta.
Jones and Campbell are already key parts of the Falcons defense, possessing versatility in coverage, against the run and, in Campbell's case, as part of the pass rush. With Jones back in the fold, as he was late last season, Oluokun's contribution should only be more valuable.
"We can accomplish great things," Oluokun said. "I think we all push each other to new levels. I know they push me to a better level, trying to be more like them and on their level … So, having that comfort on the field, being able to expect each other to make the right calls, being able to each other to be in the right position on each play, it's going to help us out a lot."