Safety depth is something the Falcons have learned the importance of in recent seasons. The emergence of Damontae Kazee over the last two years has given Atlanta a pair of quality free safeties, but back-to-back season-ending injuries to Keanu Neal left the Falcons thin at strong safety in his absence.
While Neal should hopefully be back and healthy for the 2020 season, the Falcons addressed their strong safety depth in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by adding former Cal defensive back Jaylinn Hawkins. As with all Day 3 selections, there are some things to nitpick about Hawkins's game, but he's a really interesting player upon closer inspection.
A former wide receiver-turned-cornerback-turned safety, Hawkins has a very high football IQ. He's not an elite athlete, but he often puts himself in position to make plays by understanding what offenses are trying to do against the defense – a quality that has helped Ricardo Allen succeed in the NFL. And Hawkins made a lot of plays at Cal.
During his four college seasons, Hawkins recorded 156 tackles, 10 interceptions, seven pass defenses and three forced fumbles. He displayed receiver-like body control with the ball in the air to locate and catch errant passes that were all over the place. That ability to snag interceptions is something Falcons coach Dan Quinn wants to see from his secondary, so it's no surprise the team values that in Hawkins.
"The physicality, the play-making ability, the turnovers that he's created, that's been a big factor," Quinn said. "And, so, adding another guy like that on to the defense, that's a big push."
Aside from the ball-hawking mentality the other aspect of Hawkins's play that Quinn mentions is his physicality, and that's the other thing that stands out on film. Hawkins loves to hit and fight through blocks. At times it could be argued that Hawkins was almost too physical, to the point where it jeopardized his ability to make the tackle or drew a penalty flag.
That's something that can be shored up in the NFL, but it's the same quality that made Neal such an important enforcer for Atlanta. Hawkins has the same skillset to play that type of box safety role that Neal occupies, but there may be a learning curve for him, as there is with all NFL rookies.
Hawkins is a bit smaller than Neal at this point of his career, but he's got the frame to fill out and carry more weight. He plays with the type of physicality of a player at a bigger size, though, which will also help him be a main part of Atlanta's special teams packages.
Despite his high number of turnovers, Hawkins doesn't have true sideline-to-sideline range in coverage. That won't be a big issue in Atlanta, however, because of the presence of Kazee and Allen, who can man that centerfield position as a single-high safety. Instead, Hawkins will likely be asked to play in more zone coverage or possibly line up against opposing tight ends.
His knowledge as a former receiver allowed him to play at a high level in zone coverage in college, and that should remain the case with the Falcons. He'll also have the opportunity to work with defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who formerly coached the receivers in Atlanta and also brings that unique perspective and understanding of both sides of the ball.
"I have a pretty good IQ on how things will go," Hawkins said of his experience playing receiver. "That helps me. I have a good IQ on how balls are going to be thrown a certain way. … I look forward to just keep learning. This is just the beginning. I have so much more to learn. Going to the Falcons program, learning from the [California] Bears, it's crazy."
As with fellow fourth-round pick Mykal Walker, Hawkins figures to be a mainstay on special teams early in his career. He has some experience returning kicks in college, but it's likely on the coverage units where he will shine. His combination of defensive instincts, athleticism and hitting ability could make him a standout on special teams.
Hawkins wasn't a player highly rated by those who cover the draft for national media outlets, but it's easy to see why he was on the Falcons' radar. He is a smart player who takes pride in playing a physical style of football and also has a strong ability to create turnovers.
With a clear role in mind for him, the Falcons could turn Hawkins into a productive player early in his career, and they have upped their overall depth in the secondary by adding him to the roster.
With the No. 134 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons select California safety Jaylinn Hawkins.