Mykal Walker can remember his first season with the Atlanta Falcons moving fast. Without an offseason workout due to COVID-19, everything was sped up.
Practices that could have been used for learning the playbook in June didn't arrive until August. A rookie minicamp normally reserved for newcomers to adjust to league speed was eliminated.
It showed with Walker, and many rookies around the league that suffered with decreased production. But with a full offseason and now a week into training camp, that's not the case in 2021.
"It was all about the football," the Falcons linebacker said this week. "Now I get to take the time to sit down and talk to these guys. In football, it's all about building relationships so for me to be able to meet my coaches and know what they expect of me is a lot different."
Even though Walker was one of the more impressive rookies from the 2020 class, it took time for him to adjust. It wasn't until late in the season that he felt comfortable with the scheme under then-interim head coach/defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Walker said that this year, he's paid close attention to new head coach Arthur Smith and coordinator Dean Pees. On top of that, Atlanta had a mini camp, plus OTAs this summer.
More coaching has led to increased comfort, and production.
"This year I'm playing faster and seeing stuff faster," Walker said. "I've always been a fast, aggressive player. I just took the time to learn the playbook better so I can come downhill faster."
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In six starts as a rookie, Walker recorded 45 tackles, one pass deflection and forced a fumble. Those are quality numbers in minimal starts, but everyone hopes to grow entering a full year in the league.
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On defense, a player must be confident in his skills. Walker says that there's been a "night and day" difference from 2020 to now. It's also showing off to the coaches, proving that there could be something special ahead in the new scheme.
"I'm out here leading and telling people a what to do, what's coming, and making big plays," Walker said. "This coaching staff expects it out of me, and I expect it out of myself. This year I really feel like the coaches believe in me which makes me play 100 percent better."
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Walker will be fighting for first-team reps with Foye Oluokun, a veteran defender who has already built a rapport with Deion Jones. They might have experience, but Walker has the IQ.
He credits this offseason a chance to truly learn the playbook. On top of that, he's learned to be a front-man when knowing plays and formations at the drop of the hat.
"It's one thing to memorize your plays," Walker said. "It's another to master them. Instead of focusing just on what I'm doing I can also look at what the offense is doing."
Atlanta's defense finished 29th overall last season, allowing opponents to average 398.4 yards per game. At one point, three rookies were starting without a proper amount time to learn the ins and outs of the NFL.
Maybe that won't be the case come Week 1 against Philadelphia. If it is, at least Walker believes he'll be ready for more than just minimal snaps as the No. 3 linebacker.