FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Ryan Nielsen was in the early days of a new job. It was 2017, and he had just been hired as the New Orleans Saints defensive line coach. Terry Fontenot can fondly recall those days. At the time, the Falcons general manager was the Saints director of pro scouting, and soon-to-be promoted assistant general manager.
As Fontenot sat in his own office at the Saints facility, Nielsen popped his head in. Without much preamble, Nielsen announced that David Onyemata, a second-year defensive lineman who the Saints drafted with the No. 120 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was going to be something special.
"I remember Ryan coming down to my office when he was going through the film and as raw as David was he said, 'This guy is going to be a really good football player,'" Fontenot said.
And so began a partnership between a player and coach that has established a base line for who these two individuals are, even years later as Nielsen enters into his first year as the Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator and Onyemata anchors the Atlanta defensive line alongside Grady Jarrett.
However, before they reunited in Atlanta in the offseason of 2023, they were a young player and coach in New Orleans in 2017, trying to morph a diamond in the rough.
Take a closer look into our 2023 free agency addition to the Atlanta Falcons roster, David Onyemata. On Thursday, March 16, Onyemata officially became a Falcon and settled into Flowery Branch.
That's the word that kept coming up whenever anyone talked about David Onyemata in 2016.
When the Saints drafted Onyemata in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, he was unknown, and a head-scratcher of a pick for those analyzing the Saints draft moves at the time. Here was a kid from Nigeria, who had only been playing football for four years. He was a giant question mark, not just because of his size at 304 pounds, but because not much was known of his pedigree. Bleacher Report called Onyemata a "true project."
Sure, he was one of the best talents to come out of Canada that year, as he grew into the defensive line position at the University of Manitoba. But he was so raw.
So much so that Fontenot remembers that rawness throughout the pre-draft evaluation process nearly eight years ago.
"It's a projection business when we're talking about college players, so David wasn't a finished product, but he had a really good skill set," Fontenot said. "We had a lot of scouts and coaches that got really excited about his skill set, but then there's the development part. He still has to learn to play on a pro level and a big part of that was when Ryan Nielsen came as the d-line coach in the following season."
When Nielsen first cut on the film of Onyemata in 2017, can you guess which word jumped into his head?
Onyemata had the size, strength and speed, Nielsen said, but he lacked a certain refinement in his game. That's where Nielsen could help.
"We said, 'This guy is everything that we're looking for, but we have to get him with the fundamentals and technique and start that process of learning everything,'" Nielsen remembers thinking of those early days in 2017. "... That was the beginning."
The jumping off point in Onyemata's development had to do with what he already did well. His contact balance was an obvious strength, because it was something that didn't necessarily need changing. Onyemata played so square, Nielsen said, when he would get hit, there was no movement.
His suddenness and quickness? For a player Onyemata's size, that'll "get you excited, too," according to his long-time coach.
What Onyemata needed was a mechanic to teach him how to use the skills he already possessed. Enter Nielsen, said mechanic.
"He played so hard and he played so tough and violent. You saw all of those things," Nielsen said. "It was just the little things you weren't seeing like you liked to see: The pressure, reacting to blocks quicker, and he'd get behind on certain things, but he had all the tools."
It was mundane work at first. Nothing flashy. Nothing pristine or eye-catching. It was long days in the film room watching the techniques that separated the best from the rest. It was hot days on the practice field, working on the same fundamental movement of a very specific hand placement on a blocker. It was picking Cam Jordan's brain, someone who's longevity in the league mimics the success he's seen in it.
It was - for lack of a better word - boring. But it was work Onyemata never took for granted.
Onyemata took every note, every correction, every moment of teaching that Nielsen was able to give him in those early days.
When Nielsen became his position coach, Onyemata said it was a clean slate for him. It was an opportunity to build himself from the ground up, a process that required trust between player and coach.
"Literally, down to the words, down to the sayings, I took everything down," Onyemata said. "That was a big thing because Nielsen is such a great coach and his IQ for the game is just beyond anything I've seen."
Onyemata said he owes a lot of his overall success as a defensive lineman in this league to the growth he's seen under Nielsen's tutelage. Fontenot - who saw that development happening live from the sidelines in New Orleans - agreed.
"I think if you talk to David he would attribute a lot of his development to Ryan Nielsen," Fontenot said, "someone who looked at him, looked at a skill set and said, 'Hey, we're going to be able to teach this guy how to play football at a pro level.'"
Ask Nielsen about this and he'll correct you very quickly. It was never about him. It was always about Onyemata.
"He's done all the work, and all the credit goes to David," Nielsen said. "He's put the time in."
After two years together, Onyemata began to emerge in the NFC South as one of the most reliable defensive linemen in the division (and yes, it's a division that included the likes of Jordan - his former teammate - and Jarrett - his current teammate).
The 2019 and 2020 seasons were the "aha" moments for Onyemata, who seemed to turn a corner in his development at this time. In nearly every notable metric, his combined production grew twofold from what it was in the three years prior. In the two years that followed, Onyemata made 30 starts, increased his sack total to 9.5, his tackles for a loss to 13 and his quarterback hits to 27.
Asked what changed for Onyemata in those years, Nielsen chuckled, saying it's not like he took a magic pill and suddenly became a tone-setter on that Saints defensive line. That wouldn't be a fair assumption considering the work he'd seen Onyemata put in throughout the prior two years of the two working together.
"It was the consistency of getting the details right every single day. He just kept doing it, and he just kept getting better at it. His actions led to those numbers (in 2019-20). His actions led to that production. And those are his actions in practice and what he did in the offseason. All of that stuff? He just stayed in the process," Nielsen said. "...Hard work works."
That, and success sells.
Nielsen said he remembers there being a very specific block he and Onyemata had been drilling for a long time. Come one of the early games of his fourth season, Onyemata played the block correctly. Onyemata loved that feeling, and wanted more of it.
"He was hungry, and he saw the hard work was paying off," Nielsen said. "That's the most important thing."
It was work - the boring, tedious work - that Nielsen said not everyone is willing to take the time to perfect.
"Some guys will start, but then they'll stop because they're not seeing a pay off. That was never David," Nielsen said. "David trusted the process. He trusted that by doing those little things he knew there was going to be a favorable outcome for him at the end of the road."
Onyemata isn't close to that "end of the road," though. Nielsen said there's another jump Onyemata can make in Year 8 of his career. It's why the defensive coordinator is so pleased to still be with him, even in a new city and in a new organization. Together again in Atlanta.
Let's be clear, though: The Falcons didn't go after Onyemata for Nielsen's sake this offseason. Though Nielsen was hired as the Falcons next defensive coordinator prior to the Falcons signing Onyemata in the early days of the new league year in March, Onyemata was already high on the Falcons' list of free agency targets.
They knew they needed a game-changer beside Jarrett on the defensive front, and in 2023 they also knew they had the money to acquire someone who had proven he could be that. They wanted Onyemata, having Nielsen only played in their favor.
Together, Nielsen and Onyemata are ready to embark on another leg of their journey through the league.
It's a journey that began in 2017, when Nielsen briskly walked into Fontenot's office to proclaim he liked what he saw in Onyemata. It's one that continued in 2019 and 2020 when Onyemata saw mundane work of the previous years pay off. And it's one that's potential still lies in reach for the player/coach duo in Atlanta.
According to Nielsen, he's never heard the phrase, "Hey, Coach, I'm good enough," come out of Onyemata's mouth. He doesn't believe he ever will. That's why Nielsen wasn't at all surprised when Onyemata walked into his office after signing with the Falcons in March 2023 - now an office in Atlanta - and said simply: "Hey, Coach, let's keep pushing."
Nielsen wasn't surprised because, "that's just who David is."