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Falcons free agent profiles: CB Isaiah Oliver

Oliver looked to be turning a corner before his season-ending knee injury, but is that enough for Atlanta to keep him?

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Isaiah Oliver is one of the true wild cards of the Falcons’ immediate future, and that’s largely because we only saw a glimpse of how the former second-round pick looked in a Dean Pees defense. Therefore, the coaching staff has a much greater understanding of where Oliver fits – or doesn’t – in their plans moving forward.

Oliver has not started his career the way many fans had hoped, but he’s started to round into quality form over the last 14 months. Let’s see what he brings to the table.

2021 stats

  • 4 games
  • 11 combined tackles
  • 3 pass defenses
  • 1 forced fumble
  • 1 fumble recovery
  • 72.6 Pro Football Focus defensive grade

The case for signing Oliver

The Falcons moved Oliver into starting nickel corner role in Week 5 of the 2020 season – Dan Quinn’s final game. Raheem Morris kept Oliver in the slot, despite his bigger-than-normal size for that role. Fairly quickly, it resulted in an uptick in his production as a tackler. Oliver went from missing 14.8 percent of his tackles in the first four games to 10.2 percent after moving inside. His length and closing speed suit him well near the line of scrimmage, and he is a very intelligent player who can handle scheme versatility.

That is where this gets interesting for Atlanta because Oliver’s future seemingly depended on his performance in Dean Pees’s system this season. Oliver once again manned the slot, where he held his own in coverage and moonlighted as a blitzer. In Week 3 against the New York Giants, Oliver played the best game of his career, according to Pro Football Focus, which gave him an elite 90.2 grade. Oliver forced and recovered a fumble in that game while also breaking up two passes and registering a hit on the quarterback.

The Falcons could certainly use versatility like that in the slot on a consistent basis, and it sounds like that’s what Pees had in mind as well. “If Isaiah was here,” Pees told Tori McElhaney late in the season, “he’d still be in the slot.” Oliver is coming off of a season-ending knee injury, but it occurred early in the year and those are no longer the career death sentence they once were.

Atlanta should find it more affordable to keep Oliver with the organization after his injury, which is unfortunate for the player but helps the cap-strapped Falcons. If Pees wants Oliver back, the team could likely find a way to make that happen.

The case against signing Oliver

Oliver has never really lived up to the tantalizing upside shown on his college film. Possessing the length to reject passes at the highest point and the long speed to stay on top of exceptional athletes, Oliver was a perfect match for Atlanta’s Cover 3 defense under Quinn. Teams never really tested Oliver in a linear fashion, however, and his inability to keep up with quicker receivers in and out of breaks have hurt Atlanta over the years.

After moving inside, Oliver has become a greater asset to the defense because of his tackling and blitzing abilities. But the Falcons don’t yet have enough answers in the secondary to feel comfortable about consistently hiding Oliver’s flaws in quick-breaking coverage. Contending teams usually love to have a player like Oliver, who can fill a few unique roles as a stronger corner with speed.

Atlanta is still finding its identity in the secondary, though, and are we sure Oliver is a proven long-term piece to build around?

The verdict: Re-sign Isaiah Oliver

Oliver has mostly become a different player since moving to the slot, which isn’t necessarily better suited to his coverage but makes him an asset in other ways. It’s truly a shame that we couldn’t see more of Oliver playing with an ascendant-and-then-elite A.J. Terrell, because they may have elevated each other even further.

It shouldn’t take much for the Falcons to get Oliver back on a mid-length deal, making him a returning starter with the chance to prove himself.