It's clear that the Atlanta Falcons' approach to the 2020 NFL Draft was all about adding versatile players to the roster. Versatility is something Falcons coach Dan Quinn has sought for his defense since arriving in 2015, and that continues to be the case.
The Falcons' first pick on Day 3 – former Fresno State linebacker Mykal Walker, who the team selected with the 119th-overall pick in the fourth round – represents that desire to add versatility as well as anybody. During his two seasons at Fresno State, Walker played all over the field. He lined up as an edge rusher, outside linebacker and inside linebacker, and it's likely Atlanta will want to use him in multiple roles as well.
"With Mykal, obviously the versatility, he's got the length to play outside at the SAM linebacker, and we'll feature him also at some of the WILL linebacker and play over tight ends and do that based on his length," Quinn said after the draft.
Walker was highly productive during his two years at Fresno State and was named a first-team All-Mountain West linebacker in both 2018 and 2019. He recorded 182 tackles, 22.5 tackles for a loss, 10 pass defenses and six sacks in that span while also forcing four turnovers.
Despite the production, Walker still appears to be a work in progress. That hasn't scared the Falcons off in the past, however, and the Walker pick brings to mind a similar type of selection – Atlanta's drafting of De'Vondre Campbell in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Campbell was considered to be a player with the athletic ability and versatility to succeed in the NFL, but he too was also viewed as someone who would need time to develop. Working with Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, Campbell developed into the team's leading tackler in 2018 and 2019 as well as Atlanta's go-to option against opposing tight ends.
The Falcons have stated several times that they believe third-year linebacker Foye Oluokun can step into Campbell's starting spot, which would allow Walker to work in a rotational role on base packages if that's what the team has in mind. At this point, Walker is probably best equipped to rush the passer in passing situations as he'll need to grow as a zone coverage defender.
That's not to say Walker can't eventually become an asset for Atlanta in coverage, but he wasn't as instinctual in that area of his game. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker has the necessary length and speed (4.65-second 40-yard dash) to handle himself against NFL tight ends, though, and when he was in position to make a play, he often did.
As evidenced by his high number of tackles at Fresno State, Walker is a sure-handed, wrap-and-roll tackler. He's got a great wingspan that allowed him to make plays seemingly out of his reach. There weren't too many plays out of his reach, either, as Walker possesses good upfield burst and lateral agility.
"You have to put it all together so quick," Walker said of his skillset. "It's your play recognition, it's your first quickstep, it's your chase down speed. It all just comes together. Definitely my play recognition and my first quick steps are probably the biggest things I have in my game."
Walker also plays with much more strength and power than his size would indicate. He frequently showed the ability to shed blockers and stand up the ball carrier, both in the open field and in gaps. The Falcons strive to keep their linebackers free to roam and make plays, but Walker should be able to free himself from blockers if needed.
He doesn't have the desired qualities to line up on the line of scrimmage in the NFL as often as he did in college, but the Falcons do use their WILL linebacker as a pass rusher at times and it's possible they envision utilizing Walker in that role. That might be an area where he can excel in limited bursts, because he does have nice acceleration and showed the ability to diagnose plays as they were unfolding and adjust accordingly.
"We'd rather take a good look to see where he can fit best," Quinn said of where Walker fits in the defense. "We also think there's a spot for him in the nickel defense when you go and play WILL linebacker, so when we bring the nickel in the SAM comes off, and then you transition to say, okay, is he best suited to be in a role that can add pass rush or be in a role-playing zone and guard tight ends with that type of size and length."
In his first year, it's on special teams that Walker will have the best chance to shine. He had some nice plays on special teams for Fresno State, and the functional athleticism he possesses figures to translate over to that aspect of the game nicely.
Walker's production, especially in his final year, was consistent. He never had fewer than five tackles in a single game and regularly made plays in the backfield, something extremely valuable in the NFL. Walker would likely benefit from focusing on a few key roles in his first year with the Falcons, and Ulbrich is one of the best coaches in the league to learn from.
All of the tools are there for Walker to become a good part of Atlanta's linebacker corps, but it will be important to see how he progresses in his rookie season to determine just how high his ceiling really is.
With the No. 119 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons select Fresno State linebacker Mykal Walker.