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Inside Why Falcons Re-Signed CB Isaiah Oliver

What role will Oliver play in Atlanta's defense?

By the middle of the 2020 season, the verdict on Isaiah Oliver appeared to be in. Then a third-year pro, Oliver had endured a tough start to the year playing outside cornerback opposite of then-rookie A.J. Terrell.

Then, something changed: Atlanta’s coaching staff, spearheaded by interim head coach Raheem Morris, moved Oliver inside to the nickel position. Despite being new to that role, Oliver experienced an immediate uptick in performance.

Entering the 2021 season in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, Oliver had significant momentum. He began strong, starting three of the first four games, and posting three passes defended and one forced fumble.

Unfortunately for Oliver, his season ended prematurely from a knee injury in Week 4. However, he impressed Atlanta’s new regime enough to warrant a one-year contract and a second chance to improve his own stock entering round two of free agency.

The question for the Falcons now becomes when Oliver will be back at full strength, but don’t expect an answer on his timetable to come from head coach Arthur Smith. 

“Don’t have timelines on injuries,” Smith said. “Isaiah’s doing a good job, he’s progressing. It’s just not fair to him to put a timeline on it.”

While Oliver hasn’t been able to show his talent on the field, he’s still impressed Smith off of it. 

“There’s nobody that’s working harder than Isaiah Oliver,” Smith stated. “He’s in the building - I’ll pop in there sometimes at 8 at night - and he’s in there working.”

Now, that’s not to say Atlanta’s second-year coach doesn’t know what he’s getting from Oliver. The two have only experienced four games together, but Smith is already a fan.

“He’s an intelligent football player. Embraced that role of playing that slot corner, that nickel position,” Smith said. “He can play on the outside if he needs to, he can drop deep if he has to, and he’s a good pressure player when (defensive coordinator) Dean (Pees) dials up the pressure with the slot corners.”

Perhaps nobody is happier about Oliver’s return than Pees. Last December, Pees stressed that he needs one singular nickel. Due to Oliver’s injury, the Falcons had to rely on rookies Darren Hall, Richie Grant and Avery Williams in the slot down the stretch. This reliance on multiple nickels is something that Pees said made the lives of opposing offenses easier than he’d prefer.

"It's not going to be hard for an offense to watch the film and say, 'OK, well if this guy is in the game, here's what they're really trying to do. And if this guy is in the game, here's what they're trying to do,'" said Pees. "You need to have a guy."

According to Pees, Oliver was that guy.

Moving forward, when Oliver re-joins the fold, Atlanta is expected to have a formidable cornerback group, with All-Pro A.J. Terrell and Pro Bowl free agent add Casey Hayward working on the perimeter. While the new regime has stressed that there will be competition at just about every position, Oliver appears to have a leg up in the nickel competition.

Oliver’s skill set appeals to Pees for the same reasons it does for Smith: he can blitz, cover, and play zone. This versatility is essential for Pees’ defense to succeed, but perhaps isn’t the biggest ability Oliver will need to bring to the table in 2022: availability.

One thing is for certain: Oliver is putting in the necessary work and then some behind the scenes. All that’s left to do now is translate that work to a successful fifth season in Atlanta.