With a little over a month until training camp, there isn’t much to talk about in terms of the Falcons. We did receive the interesting news that Atlanta signed veteran safety Ron Parker, who played with the Chiefs in 2017. That ought to help bolster the depth behind Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, but what about the CB position? We all know about the dominant duo of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, but what about the rest of the depth chart?
There’s the always solid Brian Poole and a handful of free agents, including special teams ace Justin Bethel and veterans Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Leon McFadden. Then, of course, we have the Falcons’ second round draft selection: Isaiah Oliver from Colorado. Oliver is a big, athletic CB with a freakishly big wingspan—in the 98th percentile based on his Combine numbers—that, while still somewhat raw in his technique, has a skillset that allows him to recover from mistakes that would otherwise lead to big plays with other defensive backs.
Oliver’s addition bolsters an already strong secondary group with a player that I viewed as a fringe first round talent. The question is: where does Oliver fit into the defense’s plans in 2018? He isn’t particularly likely to supplant either Trufant or Alford—who are both above-average CB1s—which means he’ll be competing primarily with Poole, Bethel, and the other free agents for snaps in the nickel and dime packages.
Based on what we’ve heard from the early offseason workouts, Oliver has been pretty impressive in limited action. He’ll have to be more than that, however, if he wants to take over nickel duties from Brian Poole. While Poole is merely average in coverage, he makes up for it with fantastic run support and open-field tackling ability. Quinn and DC Marquand Manuel clearly trust him, which means that Oliver will have to beat out Poole in camp in order to see the field early in the season.
In my opinion, Oliver is unlikely to beat out Poole—at least at the conclusion of training camp. As the year goes on, however, expect to see Oliver take on a match-up based role against some of the bigger receivers the Falcons are set to face. While Oliver will likely take on the role of the “nickel” CB in that he plays on passing downs, he won’t be playing in the slot. Instead, Oliver is likely to play on the outside while one of Trufant or Alford kicks inside. My money would be on Alford in that situation, who has played quite well when asked to cover some of the better slot receivers in the NFL.
Oliver is Atlanta’s best defense against WRs like Mike Evans, Devin Funchess, and A.J. Green. He excels when he can be physical with opponents and use his absurdly long arms to deflect passes down the field. While Trufant and Alford have been serviceable against those receivers, neither are particularly good match-ups against them. Oliver—if he reaches his potential—could be the “big body” neutralizer that the Falcons’ have lacked since Jalen Collins forced himself out of the NFL via repeated suspensions.
In fact, while Isaiah Oliver is a very similar player to Collins in how Atlanta will likely utilize him, I’d say that Oliver is the better athlete and a more polished player. He’s much more ready to play than Collins was when he was drafted in 2015, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oliver carving out a substantial role in the CB rotation within five or six weeks of the regular season. I doubt he’ll ever fully snatch the “nickel” role away from Poole in 2018—Oliver simply isn’t a good match-up at this point against shiftier, smaller receivers due to some technical weaknesses—but he’ll be playing meaningful snaps before too long and is likely to supplant Poole by 2019.
What are your thoughts on Oliver’s role during the 2018 season? Do you think he’ll win the nickel job by the time the season starts, or do you foresee a slower start to his career?