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Falcons to watch: What kind of 2019 role is Isaiah Oliver headed for?

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A much larger one than most of the 2018 NFL Draft class, we can tell you that.

Atlanta Falcons v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Falcons didn’t draft Isaiah Oliver to sit on the bench, but that’s what he did a lot of in 2018. With not one but two veteran cornerbacks out the door, the Falcons opened up a spot in the starting lineup for their promising second year corner, and if all goes well he won’t ever look back.

Here’s Oliver’s situation and why we’re bullish on his potential for 2019.

What’s working for Oliver?

Nearly everything. Unlike many of the talented players to come out of the 2018 class alongside Oliver, his path to playing time is clear, his talent affords him a short-term and long-term opportunity, and there are no immediate alternatives to starting him. A year ago Oliver was dealt a bad hand as a second round pick with a frustratingly small chance to push for playing time, even with an injured Robert Alford struggling in front of him. This year, he’s the starter opposite Desmond Trufant, and there are no obvious candidates to push him for that job or even take over for him early on.

Start with the opportunity. With Alford in Arizona, Oliver goes from getting just 22% of the defensive snaps last year to probably getting above 90% of them in year two. Oliver played well enough in his limited looks to give the Falcons some confidence heading into this year, and while no one really knows how he’ll fare in a full-time role, there’s a reason he got drafted in the second round last year.

That’d be the talent. Oliver has the length, ball skills, and athleticism Dan Quinn demands at cornerback, and if he marries those things effectively in the near future, he has the potential to be a terrific starter for this defense for a long time. The Falcons felt (perhaps incorrectly) that they had the luxury to bring him along slowly in year one, and hopefully that time spent learning and absorbing translates to immediate success this year.

And the lack of alternatives? The Falcons have made sport of burying Blidi Wreh-Wilson on the depth chart, and while they did draft two cornerbacks, they’re a raw but promising fourth rounder and a promising, polished, but willowy sixth rounder who figure to be bigger deals in 2020 and beyond than in 2019. Oliver’s in the catbird’s seat.

What’s working against Oliver?

The only thing working against him is that Dan Quinn worked hard to ensure he has an alternative if Oliver really falters. Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller need some work, yes, but the Falcons are excited about both players and I don’t have to stretch that hard to imagine that Oliver could cede snaps or outright lose his job if he’s failing halfway through the season. That’s a remote possibility at best, but I guess it’s worth mentioning.

What to expect in 2019

Oliver’s going to start, and he should have a long leash in the role this season. As a full-time starter in a secondary that should have its healthy safeties back, the reliable Desmond Trufant on the opposite side of field, and the aggressive, ballhawking Damontae Kazee at nickel cornerback, Oliver should be able to have a successful year.

I’m not expecting crazy stat lines, but something along the lines of three interceptions, 10-15 pass deflections, and quality coverage would make me extremely happy. Oliver’s one of my favorite prospects the Falcons have drafted in recent years, and I just hope that with opportunity will come performance.