Mykal Walker remembers his first season with the Atlanta Falcons advancing quickly. Without off-season training due to COVID-19, everything has been sped up.
Practices that could have been used to learn the playbook in June didn’t come until August. A rookie minicamp normally reserved for newcomers to adapt to the speed of the league has been eliminated.
This has been seen with Walker and many rookies in the league who have suffered from a drop in production. But with a full offseason and now a week after the start of training camp, that is not the case in 2021.
“It was all about the football,” said the Falcons linebacker this week. “Now I can take the time to sit down and talk to these guys. In football it’s about building relationships, so for me being able to meet my coaches and know what they want from me is very different.”
Even though Walker was one of the most impressive rookies in the 2020 class, it took a while to adjust. It wasn’t until late in the season that he felt comfortable with the program led by interim head coach / defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Walker said this year he paid special attention to new head coach Arthur Smith and coordinator Dean Pees. On top of that, Atlanta had a mini camp, as well as OTAs this summer.
More coaching led to increased comfort and production.
“This year I’m playing faster and seeing things faster,” Walker said. “I’ve always been a fast and aggressive player. I just took the time to learn the playbook better so I could go down faster.”
In six starts as a rookie, Walker recorded 45 tackles, one pass deflection and forced a fumble. These are quality numbers with minimal starts, but everyone is hoping to grow up entering a full year in the league.
In defense, a player must be confident in his skills. Walker says there has been a “night and day” difference from 2020 to now. It’s also showing the coaches, proving that there could be something special to come in the new program.
“I’m here to lead and tell people what to do, what’s coming and make some big plays,” Walker said. “This coaching staff expects that from me, and I expect it from myself. This year, I really feel like the coaches believe in me, which allows me to play 100% better.”
Walker will fight for the representatives of the first team with Foye Oluokun, a veteran defender who has already forged a relationship with Deion Jones. They might have experience, but Walker has the IQ.
He credits this offseason with a chance to really learn the playbook. On top of that, he has learned to be a leader by knowing the games and formations at the drop of the hat.
“It’s one thing to memorize your games,” Walker said. “It’s another to get them under control. Instead of just focusing on what I’m doing, I can also watch what the offense is doing.”
The Atlanta defense finished 29th overall last season, allowing the opponents to average 398.4 yards per game. At one point, three rookies were starting without enough time to learn the ins and outs of the NFL.
That might not be the case in the first week against Philadelphia. If so, at least Walker thinks he’ll be up for more than minimal snaps as a No.3 linebacker.