The Falcons have re-signed defensive back Isaiah Oliver to a one-year deal, the organization announced on Friday.
Oliver has been with the Falcons since the organization drafted him in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Primarily playing outside for the first three seasons, Oliver didn't turn into the league cornerback Atlanta needed at the time. Even playing opposite then-rookie AJ Terrell in 2020, Oliver never quite fit what the former staff needed him to be outside. In 2020, quarterbacks had a 75.6 percent completion rate against Oliver, and receivers averaged 12.5 yards a catch.
By the end of the 2020 season, though, the former staff began to see a better fit for Oliver inside. They began rotating him into the slot for certain packages. It was at that point that Oliver began to see an uptick in play. By the time the new Falcons coaching staff made their way to Atlanta, defensive coordinator Dean Pees felt pretty good about keeping Oliver at nickel. Pees said when he initially cut on the tape of Oliver in the slot that Oliver immediately caught his eye because he reminded the long-time coordinator of his former nickels: Ladarius Webb in Baltimore and Logan Ryan when Pees was with Tennessee.
"Both of those guys we pressured a lot with. We did certain things with them," Pees said during the first few weeks of the 2021 season. "When I watched Isaiah a year ago, I really felt like he had a lot of those same traits that those guys had, which is good for our system because I didn't have to change the system just because we had a different guy inside that can't do those things. I thought he could do those things."
And as each day passed it became more and more evident that Oliver had likely found that long-awaited niche. Even with a small sample size, the numbers support Oliver's effectiveness in stopping the run and a decrease in his average yards per catch allowed. What once was 12-plus yards dropped to an average of eight yards per catch last season.
Through the first three games of the season, Oliver was playing as well as he ever had in a Falcons uniform. Things were working, until they weren't. Oliver suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Falcons Week 4 matchup with the then-Washington Football Team. Throughout the rest of the season that followed, it was evident how important Oliver was to this defensive operation.
Weeks passed and Pees never really found a singular player to take over Oliver's role at nickel. There were a number of players who got a chance in the rotation: Avery Williams, Richie Grant, Erik Harris, etc. For Pees, nothing ever really compared.
"If Isaiah was here," Pees said in Week 17, "he'd still be in the slot."
This deal is a win-win for both sides. From the Falcons perspective, they bring back a player who Pees seems to really believe in and trust inside. Like Pees said before, Oliver isn't someone he has to change his scheme for. Oliver already fits it.
From a salary cap standpoint, this move works well, too. The Falcons don't have a lot of cap space to play around with this offseason. So, signing a slot corner off the street was a bit riskier, and maybe even more expensive, than re-signing Oliver.
Then, there's Oliver. This could be a win for him, too, as he can use this single season to show teams that 1) he's healthy and 2) he's thriving and worth a good contract in 2023. With another jump in the league's salary cap expected next offseason, if Oliver continues to play well, a better contract could be waiting for him at the conclusion of this prove it deal.