There wasn’t a lot to be excited about in 2020 in terms of Atlanta Falcons football. The team finished 4-12, failing to qualify for the playoffs for the third straight season. The Falcons made a coaching change early in the season, which eventually led to the team hiring Arthur Smith to be their head coach of their future.
One of the few bright spots of the 2020 campaign was linebacker Foye Oluokun. After spending his first two seasons as a rotational linebacker, Oluokun became a starter in year three and was one of the more consistent presences on defense. He had a career-high 14 starts, 2 interceptions, 3 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. That’s solid production for a former 6th round selection, and his growth was noticeable.
What was the difference besides more playing time?
“Just having two years under my belt. Further understanding the game, helping me become a better player, a better linebacker — and really I just needed the confidence and opportunity to get out there and play full games,” Foye Oluokun told The Falcoholic. “This was my first year starting full-time, getting all the snaps and getting into a rhythm. I could see all the hard work that I’ve been putting in throughout my football career now coming to fruition. Gaining confidence out there and flying around. That and just understanding what a coach wants from me, understanding that I’m very capable of doing what I need to do, that really helped me out.”
The Falcons overall had one of the toughest schedules in the NFL in 2020. Not saying that’s the sole reason for the 4-12 record, but it surely didn’t help the team. Towards the end of the season, the team faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs and then the Buccaneers again — both teams are set to play each other in this year’s Super Bowl. It may not have amounted to a lot of wins, but it provided experience for a young linebacker.
“Each team poses different problems,” Oluokun said. “A lot of the times I was matched up on some tight ends, you know — Darren Waller, Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry, Rob Gronkowski. As a team, the Kansas City Chiefs are good, but we played them pretty well. They have a lot of team speed and we put the blitz package out there that you’ve seen sometimes, so I think we caught them by surprise a little bit. Basically, it was just that stuff the whole game, man-to-man on somebody. It was a fun matchup and game for us.”
Oluokun and Deion Jones had a young talent added to their position group last offseason, rookie linebacker Mykal Walker who the team selected in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Although he only started in 6 games, Walker played well enough to be graded as Pro Football Focus’ top rookie linebacker for this past season.
“I think Mykal’s good. He’s really far along, especially for a rookie,” Oluokun said. “There’s a lot of upside to his game and I think he’s going to be a really good player. I like playing with him, he has a lot of confidence in everything that he does. I think it’s something that we can all feed off of him when we go into games, and he makes the plays he wants to make, and I like that about him.”
Due to the regime change earlier this month, the Falcons have been adding several familiar and unfamiliar names to their coaching staff. One such name is certainly familiar to Oluokun, as the team’s new assistant offensive line coach Chandler Henley was a tight ends coach at Yale University while both Oluokun and Jaeden Graham attended the prestigious institution.
“It’s a whole new coaching staff and I was already nervous about meeting new coaches,” Oluokun said. “I never had anything like this in my high school or college career where you’re not playing for the people you came in with. So this is my first coaching change, but it’s really cool to see a familiar face and I know all the coaches are good guys. I’m excited to meet them all, especially with Chandler Henley being a familiar face, and get comfortable with everyone on the new coaching staff.”
To run his defense, Arthur Smith was able to hire former Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Pees is honestly a phenomenal hire for a defense that has showed flashes, and he knows how to get the best out of his players.
“I’ve seen Dean Pees’ body of work, but I don’t know him,” Oluokun said. “I hear he’s a good guy, and I’ve heard he can do very well for us, so that’s what I’m excited about.”
With the 2020 season now over, Oluokun knows it’s time to start preparing for next season and taking another step forward in his young career. Oluokun is entering the final year of his rookie contract, a potential extension could become a conversation given the level he played at as a starter. But overall he’s more focused on winning games and improving along with his teammates.
“I’m going to keep working. I have my own system, my own way I study the game and how I try to become a better player,” Oluokun said. “I’ll use that work to gain more confidence going into next year. I know that I want to make another leap, become an even better player, and I can’t be satisfied with a little success from this year. Ultimately I want to win more football games, and I think we all need to step up and work better as a unit. And that’s my goal for this offseason.”
At the end of the day, football is a team sport and as Oluokun mentioned, it’s ultimately about winning games. He has the right mindset to succeed in this league, and with the work ethic he has mixed with the addition of a veteran defensive mind in Dean Pees, I’m excited to see Oluokun and several other young defensive players take a step forward in 2021.