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Inside-out? Isaiah Oliver's versatility gives Falcons secondary options

Falcons cornerback showed during last NFL season he’s capable of playing outside or in the slot

Isaiah Oliver is comfortable playing cornerback inside and out. The fourth-year cover man has done a bit of both since the Falcons drafted him in 2018, showing the type of versatility prized by head coach Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

That's an asset that has created a bit of uncertainty where he'll line up in the fall. Will he end up outside, where he played for 2018, 2019 and the start of 2020? Or will the move inside that took place in Week 5 last year become a permanent thing even with this new coaching staff?

Time will tell on that front.


We're still in the experimentation phase during the offseason program, where focus remains on learning new schemes while new coaches get to know their personnel. Pees will keep a close eye on his secondary and figure how to best position them for the fall.

"There are lots of different things that [Pees] likes to do," Oliver said after Thursday's OTA session. "I could see myself in a lot of different positions on the field. I'm excited about finding out what that is."

Atlanta Falcons free safety Isaiah Oliver #26 looks on during field work drills in Phase II of the Atlanta Falcons offseason program on May 18, 2021.

A.J. Terrell seems set to start at one outside cornerback spot. It will be interesting to see where Oliver lands in 2021's grand scheme. His 2020 campaign started primarily on the outside, but a dividing line came after four games. He played tons of nickel cornerback from Week 5 on, rarely drifting outside for prolonged stretches.

He ended up playing 410 snaps from the slot and 300 outside, according to analytics site Pro Football Focus.

PFF numbers state he gave up less per snap working inside, so there were encouraging signs that he can function well inside. Slot cornerback is an often-underrated position with tons of responsibility, covering receivers without the sideline to help them while having to be more involved in stopping the run. Sure tackling is essential, with many made on third down. Oliver added another important aspect of playing inside, one where he thrives.

"I've always been a guy who understands the scheme pretty well, knowing where to be and when to be there," Oliver said. "That's the biggest thing that differs between playing nickel and [outside] corner. You have to have a better understanding of the entire defense. Once you're able to do that, it can be pretty simple. And you can just play football after that."

Oliver's ready to play either cornerback spot or work from both if required. He's tasked with another duty entering his fourth season, and that comes while working with a young cornerback corps. There's only one exceeding Oliver's three years' experience, and Fabian Moreau's new to the team. So, after a few years of being the new kid, we can add leadership to his list of responsibilities.

"We have a younger DB room for sure," Oliver said. "Stepping into that veteran leadership role is something I've embraced. I accept that challenge. The young guys have been great. They're attentive and smart. When you have guys like that, it's easy to lead."

No matter where Oliver plays or how young others around him may be, he knows the Falcons pass defense must be better after struggling last year.

"I think we have the right group of guys, the right coaches to do it," Oliver said. "We're focused. We have the same guys. I'm excited about the year and I'm looking forward to it."

Fans react to an Atlanta Falcons touchdown during the first half of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA, on Sunday November 24, 2019. (Photo by Adam Hagy/Atlanta Falcons)

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