Editor's note: This is the second story in a 10-part series counting down the top 10 Atlanta Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.
After becoming a full-time starter in 2019, third-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver will need to up his game yet again to help the Atlanta Falcons overcome the departure of Desmond Trufant as the team's top corner.
Oliver received plenty of criticism during Atlanta's mistake-riddled defensive performances throughout the first half of last season, but he provided real reasons for optimism as the Falcons rolled to a 6-2 finish. The Falcons have gotten much younger at cornerback the last two offseasons, but it's Oliver who now has the most starting experience amongst the group.
If he's able to turn that experience into tangible on-field improvement, Oliver is more than poised for a breakout year in 2020.
TOP 10 BREAKOUT SEASON COUNTDOWN
- July 13: No. 10 Takk McKinley
- July 14: No. 9 Isaiah Oliver
- July 15: No. 8 Todd Gurley
- July 16: No. 7 Matt Hennessy
- July 17: No. 6 Russell Gage
- July 20: No. 5 Kendall Sheffield
- July 21: No. 4 Foye Oluokun
- July 22: No. 3 Chris Lindstrom
- July 23: No. 2 Calvin Ridley
- July 24: No. 1 Hayden Hurst
Body of work
It's clear through Oliver's first two seasons that the Falcons' second-round pick out of Colorado in 2018 gets better as the weather gets colder. Now, there are two distinct reasons for that pattern so far.
Oliver's two starts as a rookie came in Weeks 4 and 9, but he began to see more play time as a rotational defender during the final four games of the 2018 season. With more time on the field in the final month of the season, Oliver began to make plays. He recorded eight tackles, two pass defenses and his lone career interception during the last four games of the year.
While increased opportunity was the reason for Oliver's growth as a rookie, his improvement in 2019 appears much more real and far more important. Like much of the Falcons' secondary, Oliver appeared to greatly benefit from Raheem Morris taking over as defensive coordinator. Morris has an extensive history working with defensive backs, and Oliver looked like a different player once the switch was made.
Following Atlanta's bye week in 2019, Oliver allowed seven fewer completions and 182 fewer yards than he did during the first half of the season. Most importantly, however, Oliver did not give up any touchdowns during Atlanta's 6-2 finish after giving up five touchdowns prior to the bye week.
Poised for a breakout
Cornerback is among the most difficult positions in the NFL for a player to excel at, and Oliver has certainly taken his share of lumps in the first two years. Nevertheless, there are plenty of factors that could help Oliver have a true breakout season in 2020.
The presence of Morris and new secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. will provide Oliver with two teachers who have direct experience playing in the NFL. Whitt helped the Cleveland Browns finish as the No. 7 pass defense last season, and he has a long history of working with defensive backs, primarily with the Green Bay Packers.
Oliver possesses the size and physicality that Dan Quinn has traditionally liked in his Cover 3 schemes. That length will be an important factor for the Falcons as they try to limit opposing receivers like Michael Thomas and Mike Evans, who they will see four times this fall. Improvements in his technique were what helped Oliver play more consistently in 2019, and that improvement is likely connected to the number of snaps he accrued last year as well as his comfort in executing what Morris expects of him.
"Whether it was playing a certain technique or playing a certain receiver a certain way, [Morris] wanted us to be comfortable with what we were doing and really work on that one thing," Oliver said this offseason. "He didn't want everyone trying to do the same things. We're all different types of players."
Atlanta's secondary has been hit with injuries in recent seasons, which has not made it any easier for Oliver to become comfortable within the Falcons defense. But he's got to begin to develop into a consistent and reliable starter at cornerback for the Falcons' entire defense to take a needed step forward.
If he can pick up in 2020 where he left off in 2019, Oliver will be well on his way towards making that jump.
We are counting down the top 10 Falcons players our writers believe are most likely to have a breakout season in 2020. The definition of breakout, for the purpose of this list, is a player who shows sudden significant improvement.