Mykal Walker quietly had a very good rookie season. He was named to Pro Football Focus’s All-Rookie team for 2020 based on his excellence in coverage and all-around game, but he was also clearly third in the linebacker pecking order behind Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun, and thus only played 36% of the defensive snaps in 2020.
Here’s a rare confident prediction from me: That will change and change significantly in 2021. The Falcons will be needing to paper over some deficiencies on defense because they lack the dollars and draft picks to overhaul the entire defense in one go, and that means they’ll need to lean heavily on young, versatile players who can fill multiple roles. That’s good news, potentially, for Isaiah Oliver (who may be able to do some work at safety) and John Cominsky (a fine defensive end and defensive tackle choice depending on the defensive front), but it may be especially good news for Walker.
That’s because Walker showed well a year ago, as Pees will realize watching last year’s Falcons games, and because of his college history of shifting around and playing everywhere. In college, Walker split time between defensive end, inside linebacker, and outside linebacker, and in a truly multiple front like the one Pees is promising, that means there’ll be multiple places where Walker can worm his way into the lineup and make an impact. Remember, he showed well in coverage in his rookie season and had 6.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in his two seasons with Fresno State. There’s quite a bit of potential here for him in a variety of roles, even if he was lightly used as a pass rusher in his rookie season.
Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans are examples of players Pees worked with in Tennessee who found a lot of success working in different roles. Brown became known for his coverage—something Walker has already shown to be surprisingly proficient in, given that it was considered a potential weakness out of Fresno State—and Evans is a bit hitter who dabbles effectively as a pass rusher. Walker appears to be able to do some of all of that and is a plus athlete, and as SportsTalkATL notes, that bodes well for him and his fellow hyper-athletic linebackers.
There are no guarantees that Walker will break out, but his talent and versatility suggests he’ll have every opportunity to. I expect Pees and his staff will recognize that potential and make good use of it.