Foye Oluokun is a Jacksonville Jaguar now, thanks to a deal featuring $28 million in guarantees that the Falcons were obviously unable or unwilling to match or exceed. It’s hard to be upset with Oluokun for taking a lucrative deal after a big season, but obviously the Falcons now have to move forward without a player who led the team in forced turnovers and led the NFL in tackles in 2021.
The team may think that they aren’t in the worst position to do so today. Deion Jones is still here, and while the frustration level with him is extremely high in this fanbase, he’s still just going to be 28 years old in 2022 and was playing his first year in a new defense. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen him operating at the peak of his powers, but it’s at least feasible that he could return to a higher level of play Oluokun’s role might be filled by Mykal Walker, a physical player who has shown flashes of brilliance in limited playing time and might be ready to step into a larger role. Hell, if you want to dig in on Oluokun’s 2021 performance, you’ll note he earned a 46.5 Pro Football Focus grade and teams had zero trouble completing passes thrown in his direction.
Yet all of that overcomplicates a simple picture: The Falcons had a young linebacker they liked and trusted enough to give play calling duties on defense to, and now he’s gone without an experienced replacement. We don’t have a good feel for Dean Pees’ impression of Mykal Walker—he got very limited playing time with Oluokun and Jones locked into roles—but they’ll have to have a lot of faith in him to hand him a starting job. As discussed, it’s far from a certain thing that they even feel good about Jones as a starter next to him.
Fortunately, they will have options. As I outlined in my free agent targets for inside linebacker, Jayon Brown played for Dean Pees in Tennessee and may hit the open market, and there are at least a half-dozen players capable of being stopgap starters or high-end reserves if the Falcons want to go that route. If they’re more interested in a long-term option, this draft class is loaded with capable and interesting players, with the top options expected to be Utah’s Devin Lloyd and Georgia’s Nakobe Dean. It’s not hard to envision a scenario in which this team, having inherited a roster they aren’t necessarily married to, decide to turn to the draft to give themselves a young starter who they feel good about for years to come.
My hopes for Walker in particular are high, but don’t expect the Falcons to roll into the 2022 season putting him and Jones down as starters in pen. They’ll make moves to bolster the inside linebacker group, and as is the case with almost every other position group on the roster, they’ll be necessary moves. The departure of Oluokun means running it back just won’t be an option, because there’s just too much risk involved in banking on leaps and bounds from Jones and Walker without a very good fallback plan.