Jaylinn Hawkins has been through a lot in just two short years as an NFL player.
He was drafted at the onset of the pandemic; his head coach and general manager were relieved of their duties five games into his rookie season; the entirety of his position group changed during his first offseason, and he’s learned a new scheme that by all accounts is pretty complex.
Nevertheless, Hawkins navigated that turbulence and emerged on the other side with a great mindset entering Year 3.
“I’m working day in and day out, really just trying to win the day,” Hawkins explained when he joined me on the Bleav in Falcons podcast. “Yeah, that’s really it, man, just trying to stay consistent in my craft. And not only that but just get better with what I do. Certain things that I’ve seen on tape last year that I can improve on. Second year in the system, so I feel very comfortable. I’m just enhancing my game no matter what. I can’t really get complacent.”
When the Falcons signed veteran safeties Erik Harris and Duron Harmon last offseason, Hawkins understandably slid back down the depth chart. When they then drafted safety Richie Grant in the second round, it became fair to question whether Hawkins was in Atlanta’s long-term plans. To his credit, Hawkins handled his business and showed real improvement in his second season.
The ability to keep the proper perspective on events that can feel very personal is underrated and important, especially for a young professional athlete. Instead of looking at the Falcons’ new safeties as a threat to his future or an indictment of his abilities, Hawkins saw it as an opportunity and grew as a player both on and off the field.
While learning a new role and defensive design, Hawkins cracked Atlanta’s safety rotation and started four games. His natural ball-hawking play style was apparent and led to his first two career interceptions, which came in back-to-back games against the Jets and Dolphins.
“They’re really my brothers, I’m not going to lie,” Hawkins said of Harris and Harmon. “Being back there with them and playing with them was very good. It taught me a lot. I learned a lot from both [of them]. I also learned a lot of different character-building things. How to become a better leader. Seeing some of their routines and taking notes on what they do, how they keep their body right. Even with the scheme, teaching me certain ways to be savvy within the scheme. Certain disguises. Just little things.”
Let’s talk about the scheme. Hawkins was drafted with a role in Quinn’s Cover-3/1 style of defense in mind, but he has a very versatile background. He initially arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, as a wide receiver. He then transitioned to cornerback and eventually to safety, where he played both free and strong.
All teams will tell you they value versatility on defense, but that doesn’t mean all teams utilize versatility to the same degree. The Falcons mostly had more defined roles for their safeties under Quinn – a box safety and a deep safety. The defense Pees implemented involves a bit more flexibility.
“Dan Quinn’s defense was a little more stationary as far as positioning,” Hawkins explained. “More of a single role. Whereas, I get into this defense and I’m playing multiple roles. Left or right [safety], and in multiple areas of the field. I’d say that’s the biggest difference.”
By nature, safety is one of the most versatile positions in any defense and Pees relies on that positional advantage to confuse opposing quarterbacks. On any given play the roles of each safety can completely switch after the snap. A two-deep look can quickly change to a single-high shell with a robber in the middle of the field or an extra blitzer coming through the B gap.
Of course, that can be quite demanding on a safety, who must retain all of that information and call upon it while in the midst of a highly stressful situation. That’s partially why Atlanta signed Harris and Harmon to be veteran bridge players for the position while Hawkins and Grant got up to speed. Now, Hawkins has learned what to look for in film study throughout the week and implements that knowledge quickly on Sundays.
“The attention to detail is heavy, and you’ve got to constantly think,” he said. “So you’ve got give space for your mind to just do that. While you’re out of the field, you’ve got to be poised. I like to be turnt up and loose, I’m not really an uptight guy on the field. But, for the most part, you’ve got to be poised and be aware. And that all comes from preparation.”
That preparation should allow Hawkins to fully unleash his athleticism to the defense’s advantage in games, but he also stressed the importance of playing within the design of the entire defense. “One 11” is the term Hawkins used to describe this defensive mindset, which emphasizes the importance of each player handling their role and not freelancing to make the play.
Again, every team will strive to hammer home this point for their defense, but other philosophies can send a contradictory message. Quinn wanted his defense to produce turnovers, which necessitates players taking a calculated risk and attempting to make a play. If the play is not made, though, there’s now a hole in the defense.
“Things that we do tie into what other people do and affect the defense as a whole,” Hawkins said. “And so everybody just has to do their One 11. It’s about the defense as a whole making plays and the defense as a whole being good. Because one area can’t just be good and the other areas on the defense be average.
“So, if everybody operates and does their One 11, that’s how the defense functions. It allows good things to happen out there – get third-down stops, splash plays, interceptions. Stuff that helps you win football games.”
All phases of Atlanta’s football team are in a period of transition, but the defense truly feels like it’s in a bit of a youth movement. Younger players like Hawkins are going to be asked to step up and perform this season to show whether or not they can be part of the long-term answer. That means the lessons Hawkins learned last season will only become more important, and only Harris is back in the fold this time around.
Whether Hawkins or Grant is named the starter alongside Harris is almost nominal at this point – the trio should all see high amounts of playing time. If Atlanta’s first-contract players do make leaps in their second year with this staff, the path back to contender status doesn’t seem so long and winding. For his part, Hawkins seems fairly confident in his group:
“We’re on our way, last year was just the start. Like I said, the sky is the limit for us.”
Hawkins spent the offseason training in California and worked on adding overall strength and explosiveness to his frame. He drilled specific techniques and movements for his position within the scheme to get it truly refined into muscle memory. For the Falcons’ defense to take the next step, it will take each one of the 11 members to improve.
Knowing the challenge and opportunity in front of him, Hawkins dedicated himself to getting better this offseason. As he enters his third season with a better grasp of his role, the stage is set for him to join A.J. Terrell as a defensive playmaker from the 2020 draft class. And he knows how to make that happen.
“The whole mindset is basically just to win the day, and that’s how I take the approach to this,” Hawkins said. “By going in there, working hard, doing my One 11, being accountable – as well as my teammates out there, we’re all being accountable for each other – and just going out there and putting our best foot forward. Just get better day by day and let the results be the results.”