The injury to cornerback Isaiah Oliver offers an important learning opportunity and litmus test for this new Atlanta Falcons coaching staff. Will the young players that replace him grow and develop over the course of the 2021 season?
This is a similar scenario to the one facing the team at the left guard position that I wrote about a few weeks ago with rookie Jalen Mayfield. After two very lackluster games to start the season, concerns about Mayfield’s long-term viability were raised.
Fortunately for the team, Mayfield then turned in his best performance in the Falcons’ Week 3 win over the New York Giants, allaying those concerns for at least a week. Such a timely performance will likely earn Mayfield the starting reps at left guard for the foreseeable future.
Similar rules are applied to the Falcons’ now vacant nickel cornerback spot after the season-ending knee injury to Oliver.
Oliver’s initial fall and subsequent rise
Oliver had been playing his best football through the first month of the season, with his performance against the Giants being arguably the best he’s played since arriving in Atlanta with high expectations as a former 2018 second-round pick.
At that time, the outlook for Oliver was that he would be a long-term starter for the Falcons and their best answer to matching up against the bigger wideouts that they faced within the NFC South like Mike Evans and Michael Thomas.
But those dreams never came to fruition as Oliver had a disastrous start to his career at the beginning of 2019 when he succeeded long-time starter Robert Alford that year as the starter at outside cornerback opposite Desmond Trufant.
Things didn’t fare better for him the following year until the team opted to move him inside to nickel cornerback in Week 5. His performance thereafter improved, largely thanks to his new role in the slot masking his greatest vulnerability: speed.
Time and time again as an outside corner, Oliver was exposed when facing faster receivers. But one of the benefits of playing inside is that teams typically do not ask their slot receivers to run vertical routes. Instead, those receivers typically run more short and intermediate routes and whenever they do go deep, the Falcons’ tendency to play with a single-high free safety in the middle of the field, meant that Oliver would more often than not have safety help over the top to keep him from being exploited deep.
Oliver only continued to improve as a nickel corner under new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees this season, as well. He had become a versatile chess piece for the accomplished play-caller whenever he liked to use disguise by inverting certain coverages, utilizing Oliver more at safety to cover the deep half.
With Oliver done for the year, those responsibilities will have to fall on one of three rookies that are expected to replace him. The Falcons drafted three defensive backs in this past year’s 2021 NFL Draft, and any one of them might be the long-term replacement for Oliver.
Next man up
First up, likely will be fifth-round draft pick, Avery Williams. He has replaced Oliver the past two weeks when he was forced to exit the game, and Williams has done an admirable job considering the circumstances. At times, however, he looked lost this past week against Washington in extended reps.
Fourth-round selection Darren Hall is another option to step into the void left by Oliver. My initial expectations entering training camp were that Hall would outright win the starting nickel spot over Oliver. That never came to fruition, but now Hall is presented with a golden opportunity to show his worth.
Many questioned whether Hall was a reach, given that most “draft experts” projected Hall as a late-round pick. Hall played exclusively as an outside corner at San Diego State, but his limited size and length made his projection to that same role at the NFL level difficult.
Thus, one assumed that the Falcons thought so highly of him in part due to their ability to transition him as an inside corner where his size limitations would be less of an issue. But based off his limited playing time during the preseason, we have an indication that the transition from the collegiate level did not go so smoothly for Hall.
Perhaps Hall is better prepared now to take advantage of this current opportunity than he was at the start of the summer. That would also retroactively make their decision to draft him look better.
The third candidate to replace Oliver, safety Richie Grant, was also an early selection who has underwhelmed thus far. Taken in the second round, expectations for Grant entering the summer focused around him being a centerpiece in the Falcons secondary for years to come.
But Grant quickly found himself buried on the depth chart, working behind not only starters Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, but also 2020 fourth-round selection Jaylinn Hawkins.
Thus far, Grant has worked almost exclusively on special teams, while Hawkins, as the team’s third safety, has gotten 15 or more snaps each week platooning with Harris and Harmon.
Yet there are questions over whether Harris and Harmon can provide the stability needed as the team’s starting safeties, leaving many wondering if the team would not be better served not only in the short term but also long-term by plugging Grant into the starting lineup, even if that means the rookie taking his lumps a la Mayfield.
With Harris dealing with a calf injury, that could be put to the test this weekend, assuming Hawkins takes over the starting spot in the former’s absence, with Grant now is positioned to get those part-time platooning reps.
But instead, it’s also possible that Grant could get far more extensive action on defense moving forward at nickel cornerback. After all, per Pro Football Focus, about 40 percent of his snaps during the preseason came when he was lined up at slot cornerback.
That was largely owed to head coach Arthur Smith’s refusal to play any of the Falcons’ projected starters during the exhibition season, putting Grant in a position to earn the nickel snaps with the first-team defense.
Grant’s preseason performance was mixed, but his size and length in comparison to Williams and Hall does potentially make him a viable alternative at nickel corner.
Coupled with his safety experience, you could leave one to believe that he could be a lot more comfortable being moved around the defense in some of those more complicated disguises that Pees wants to draw up.
But whether it’s Williams, Hall, or Grant that eventually takes over for the Falcons in the slot, the team certainly has a vested interest in one or all emerging in Oliver’s stead.
Oliver is slated to be a free agent after this season, and the Falcons' decision to draft three defensive backs that all have the potential to man the slot suggests that their intention from the beginning was for one of them to emerge as a viable starter to replace Oliver by next year.
Despite this setback stemming from Oliver’s injury, the team remains on that track. But whether that train gets derailed down the road will depend on how well the team’s young trio performs for the remainder of the year.
Youthful mistakes expected
The nickel cornerback position has been a problematic one for the Falcons for much of the last decade. Those issues were regularly on display on former head coach Mike Smith’s Falcons teams, with seemingly an annual revolving door looking for someone to solidify that spot. Things seemed to stabilize a bit for the three years (2016-18) under Dan Quinn that Brian Poole manned the position, but has been volatile in the years since.
Oliver seemed to be on the track to solidify that spot once more before his injury. But now the Falcons will hope that by year’s end one of the young defensive backs will assume that responsibility.
Given the youth and inexperience of the collective options, one probably won’t expect things to immediately click. But similar to the situation surrounding Mayfield, growth will be measured over the course of months rather than weeks. As we saw with Mayfield struggling in Week 4 after a solid Week 3 outing, ups and downs are to be expected with young players such as those the Falcons will employ in the secondary.
But should one or more of the Falcons' current rookie defensive backs emerge and look like a viable long-term option at nickel cornerback by year’s end, it will say a lot about this current Falcons coaching staff’s ability to develop young players.
This will be an encouraging sign for the long-term potential of these Falcons under the new regime’s leadership, as it bodes well for any future prospects that the team will add since they too should be properly developed.
They’ll do so, preferably, over a time span that leads to more immediate success on the field. While Oliver did eventually figure things out as a nickel cornerback, it wasn’t until his third year and after Quinn’s dismissal did that come to fruition. And as mentioned before, only now in his fourth season did it all start to truly come together for the former second-round draft pick.
The last thing fans want to see from this Smith regime is to have to wait another two or more years for the investments in Grant, Hall, and/or Williams to begin paying off. Instead, it would be refreshing to start to see that pay off in the next two months.
Whether that’s a realistic timeline remains to be seen, but it’s something worth paying close attention to as we continue to adapt to this new regime.
Do you think one or more of the Falcons rookies can step up and fill the void left by an injured Oliver at nickel cornerback? Which of the three would you like to see get the opportunity?