If you’re Jaylinn Hawkins, it has been a whirlwind 12 months or so. The Thomas Dimitroff fourth round pick turned in quality work as a reserve in 2021 that he turned into a starting job at safety in 2022, only to see the Falcons bring in star safety Jessie Bates in free agency. Despite a year where he appeared in and started 16 games and improved his per-target coverage numbers and missed tackle rate, Hawkins looks like he’s set to be a reserve again in 2023.
That would already make it a pivotal, prove-it year for Hawkins—who has been a key player for Atlanta the past two seasons and has 20 starts under his belt—but it also happens to be his final year before he enters free agency. Hawkins can make himself quite a bit of money with a quality season in Atlanta as the team’s third safety. It goes without saying that if he’d like to stick with the Falcons over the long haul, a god year for new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen would probably help with that.
It’s a pivotal year, then, making Hawkins one of several Falcons who are to set themselves up for success in 2024 and beyond if they can seize opportunities in front of them, however limited. Let’s talk more about what’s ahead for Hawkins and what his 2023 might look like.
What can Hawkins bring to the table?
A lot, really.
At his best during his starting stints, Hawkins has shown himself to be a physical, aggressive defender, one who delivers big hits and can come up with timely turnovers. No Falcon has more interceptions the past two seasons than Hawkins (who had four in that span), and only one defensive back has forced more than Hawkins’ one fumble. As mentioned briefly above, he also cut down on his yards per reception allowed and trimmed his missed tackle rate from 17.2% in 2021 to 7.7% in 2022. Minus the four touchdowns allowed last year and a handful of frustrating lapses in coverage, Hawkins has improved with more playing time and starting opportunities.
He may never be a phenomenal player in coverage—there’s still the weird Dean Pees decision to park him for a while in favor of Dean Marlowe last year in the Rams game, seemingly sparked by his struggles in that game—but Hawkins is hardly a liability in that regard and is a player with a solid-at-worst all-around game.
As a third safety, then, he’s an excellent player to have around, one you’d feel comfortable having as a short-term (or even potentially long-term) starter if injury hits your safety group. Because he is a player capable of producing a game-changing turnover and reliable overall, the Falcons may well elect to roll out some three safety sets in 2023 that give Atlanta an imposing group alongside A.J. Terrell and (presumably) Jeff Okudah.
What are the stakes?
For the Falcons, significant. If Hawkins is capable of playing as well as he did throughout much of last year or even improving further, he’s an excellent insurance policy at a safety position where the team has been mighty thin in recent years. If Atlanta wants to roll out three safety sets and get Hawkins in there instead of, say, Dee Alford or Mike Hughes for the sake of a more physical secondary and in the right matchup, a strong level of play will enable that and could encourage more Hawkins usage.
For Hawkins, the stakes are also significant. The 2024 free agency class at safety is solid if the Cardinals don’t somehow pick up Budda Baker’s club option, but it’s light on spectacular options. Hawkins will only be 27 years old when the 2024 season starts and already has a track record as a solid enough starter; a quality year in a quasi-starting role should make him one of the more attractive options in free agency at safety. If he wants to remain in Atlanta—not a given with Grant and Bates presumably in front of him—proving he can be a bit of a chess piece in that Nielsen defense will, as I said above, greatly increase the chances of that. Either way, a quality year gets Hawkins a nice contract from someone, while a quiet year could see him lost amidst the many mid-tier options set to hit the market.
The best-case scenario for Hawkins barring injury ahead of him or the kind of stellar summer that sees him overtake Grant is simple: The aforementioned third safety role, one that might see him deployed semi-frequently as a fifth defensive back. His only competition for that role seems to be Tre Flowers (maybe) and rookie DeMarcco Hellams, and I’d be stunned if either surpassed him on the depth chart.
We know that Hawkins is capable of playing well in that role because for long stretches over the past season-plus, he played well as a full-time starter. I think it’s realistic to expect him to seize that role and at least function well in it, though I’d bet heavily on him thriving if Nielsen gives him the playing time to do so.
For both Hawkins and the team, a stellar year in that role would be a big deal for 2023, and for Hawkins, it could mean a significant payday in 2024. The talent is there and the opportunity should be, so the hope is that this pivotal season will be a productive one for Jaylinn Hawkins.