When the Falcons’ defense has been discussed from a national viewpoint, it’s been largely labeled as a unit with two legitimate players and a bunch of guys. Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones have established themselves as top players at their respective positions, although Jones has work to do this season following a disappointing season by his standards.
A.J. Terrell may receive a mention because he was a first-round pick who showed flashes last season. Questions about what happened to Dante Fowler could emerge as part of the conversation. The rest of the discussion largely consists of Dee Pees’ impressive credentials and how he has his work cut out for him. While the Falcons’ defense is filled with question marks, one player is being forgotten about as a genuine playmaker. He also played at a higher level than Jarrett and Jones last year.
Foye Oluokun was the biggest bright spot on the Falcons’ defense last season. Besides Calvin Ridley solidifying himself as a top-tier wide receiver who can flourish without Julio Jones, the biggest highlight of the Falcons’ miserable 2020 season was Oluokun making outstanding plays all across the field every week. There weren’t many three-down linebackers in the league that filled up the stat sheet quite like him. The former sixth-round pick produced 117 tackles, four forced fumbles, four pass breakups, four tackles for a loss, three sacks, two interceptions, one fumble recovery, and nine quarterback hits. That stat line indicates how much of a difference he made in several different ways. If the Falcons didn’t have a 4-12 record, Oluokun would have been garnering major national attention for his tremendous season.
The former Yale star looked promising from the start of his NFL career. When Jones suffered a broken foot and Duke Riley proved to be a massive liability, the coaching staff had to entrust Oluokun with a starting role. To only play outside linebacker for one season in a non-major conference and then to jump in as a three-down linebacker against the likes of Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger was an absurd transition.
Oluokun proved to be one of the few bright spots for a decimated defense in 2018. The talent was clearly there, particularly in the latter stages of the season. Oluokun made an exceptional play against Green Bay, where he ran 50 yards downfield to prevent Aaron Rodgers from connecting with Jimmy Graham. I broke the play down here, which showcases how Oluokun broke up the pass, along with his tremendous awareness.
It was disappointing for Oluokun to not receive more playing time in 2019. Considering how appalling the defense was, Dan Quinn should have made several personnel changes. He opted to stick with De’Vondre Campbell as the starter, which proved to be one of Quinn’s many mistakes given the way his replacement merged last year. Oluokun eventually got his chance to start in 2020, as Campbell wasn’t re-signed in free agency. All he needed was one real opportunity as a starter to make his mark.
Oluokun put together an exceptional highlight reel of plays in 2020. The crowning moment had to be intercepting Patrick Mahomes in the red zone during a surprisingly competitive game between the Falcons and Chiefs. On third and goal, the Falcons were playing zone to protect the end zone. With Travis Kelce lining it up on the left against Kendall Sheffield, it seemed probable that Mahomes was going to look to find his superstar tight end and favorite red-zone target. Le’Veon Bell’s presence on the flat route took Keanu Neal away from the area. That gave Mahomes the confidence to make the throw with Kelce getting leverage on the much-smaller Sheffield. What wasn’t accounted for was Oluokun waiting in the throwing lane, ready to pounce on the ball.
Oluokun glances to his right to see Jones pick up Demarcus Robinson. Whether it was to see if Jones actually had him or Oluokun trying to bait Mahomes into throwing towards his direction is difficult to know. Considering he played corner and safety for three years at Yale, it seems more likely that Oluokun used his instincts and savviness to force Mahomes into a rare mistake. The 2018 MVP only threw six interceptions in 2020. For him to make a crucial error against the Falcons, especially in the red zone, speaks volumes on how good of a play this is from the rising star linebacker.
The ball skills on this interception deserve to be mentioned as well. Look at how Oluokun high-points the ball and comes down with the interception. While his ball security could use some work, as he nearly gives the ball back to Kansas City, it’s these types of plays that make him such a dynamic player. Oluokun was consistently around the ball in 2020. Playing under a defensive mastermind like Dean Pees should only increase turnover opportunities for him going forward.
From breaking up and intercepting passes to making defensive stops in the running game to producing sacks off the strongside, Oluokun did it all as a three-down linebacker. The stage is set for him to fully establish himself as a top-level linebacker this season. The decision to insert him in the MIKE role validates how much the coaching staff trusts him to be at the heart of the defense. Oluokun is a special player that possesses all the technical skills and leadership qualities you want from a linebacker. Regardless of how good or bad the Falcons are this season, everyone who watches the sport closely is going to take notice of the next star player in Atlanta.