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Falcons to watch: What kind of 2019 role can Foye Oluokun expect?

Following an exciting rookie season, Oluokun’s path to playing time is clear, but a huge role may not be in the offing.

Baltimore Ravens v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Foye Oluokun is coming off a rookie season that was more impressive than you probably remember. Oluokun was a sixth round rookie out of Yale, but he didn’t just leapfrog second year vet and former third rounder Duke Riley fairly early in the season. He also managed to play the 10th-most snaps of any player on both defense and special teams, putting together an average Pro Football Focus grade that fails to capture some of the legitimately impressive work in coverage and on teams that Oluokun put on tape, especially late in the season.

For all those reasons and more, it’s natural to be excited about Foye Oluokun and what looks to be bright future with the Falcons. But should we also be excited about his 2019 role?

What’s working for Oluokun?

A lack of competition is the primary thing. Oluokun dispatched Duke Riley in fairly short order last season—something there were whispers about as early as preseason—and will go into the year ahead of him on the depth chart barring anything shocking. The competition beyond Riley consists of a core special teamer with a limited role on defense (Kemal Ishmael), a young veteran who has also made most of his impact to this point on special teams (Jermaine Grace), and an intriguing rookie undrafted free agent (Tre’ Crawford). Oluokun is the third linebacker on this depth chart, period.

Then there’s the talent. Oluokun had his adventures in his rookie season, but he also proved to be a capable tackler, a useful linebacker in coverage, and a player capable of occasionally blowing up a play in the backfield. Oluokun came into the league with question marks that echoed the ones that followed Campbell into the NFL back in 2016, namely concerns about his instincts and play recognition out of the box. Like Campbell before him, Oluokun showed why the broad contours of those questions existed with some of his mishaps and penalties, but largely dispelled them thanks to his better-than-expected play. Oluokun’s rookie season suggests that he has at least league average starter upside over the long haul, and frankly I think he could be quite good.

Finally, there’s special teams value. Duke Riley carved out a nice role for himself there last year, but so did Oluokun, whose athleticism and tackling play well on teams. That value will ensure he’s also active and always has a chance to contribute.

What’s working against Oluokun?

Opportunity on defense, more than anything else.

If you look at the way this team divvied up their 2017 snaps on defense, Deion Jones played nearly 97% of the defensive snaps and De’Vondre Campbell played over 90%. Vic Beasley and others did mix in at linbacker, as well, but it’s worth noting that Duke Riley played just 21% of the defensive snaps in a year where the team’s top two options were healthy. That should clue you in to the kind of role the team’s third linebacker actually has in this defense. Jones is a superstar and Campbell is really good, so aside from perhaps giving Campbell the occasional breather, Oluokun’s not going to get on the field except in situations where the team wants three linebackers. Again, those are relatively rare.

I’d expect Oluokun to get closer to a third of the defensive snaps if health holds, and he can still do plenty of good things with 300-something snaps. Realistically he needs injury to open up chances for more than that, though, and as much as I’m rooting for Oluokun to become great and get all the snaps he can handle, I don’t want that to be the reason.

What to expect in 2019

A relatively modest role, but quality production within that. I’d expect Oluokun to land between 300-400 snaps on defense and 150-200 on special teams, finishing the year with 50-plus tackles, a sack or two, and several tackles for loss. Like Senat and Gage in this series before him, Oluokun’s best chance to truly arrive and earn a starting role will come in 2020, when the team may or may not re-sign Campbell. He’ll still be an important contributor in 2019.