Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun encapsulates the role that the New York Jets are looking to fill with Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen.
One of Robert Saleh‘s most appealing traits as a head coaching candidate was his open-mindedness. Over the course of his four years in San Francisco, Saleh constantly molded the makeup and core philosophies of the 49ers’ defense, willingly making adjustments based on input from his defensive staff. Rather than forcefully impose his own vision, Saleh listened to those around him, ensuring that the construction of San Francisco’s defense was a full-on group effort.
For example, take the 49ers’ well-known emphasis on utilizing their defensive ends in a wide-nine alignment over the past two years. San Francisco was not doing that over Saleh’s first two years with the team. The wide-nine was implemented by Kris Kocurek when he was hired as the team’s defensive line coach in 2019. A pupil of Jim Washburn – one of the early populizers of the wide-nine concept – Kocurek was given Saleh’s blessing to change up the 49ers’ philosophies on the defensive line.
The wide-nine helped Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Arik Armstead lead a dominant pass rush that was the primary driving force behind a second-ranked defense that ran all the way to the Super Bowl. Saleh’s willingness to alter his defense based on the suggestions of a newly-hired position coach ended up leading the 49ers to within one win of a championship.
Just a few months into Saleh’s tenure as the head coach of the New York Jets, we are already seeing his open-mindedness come into play.
With the core of the Jets’ 2021 roster nearly complete (save for any late free agent additions or trades), the defense does not look like it is being constructed to completely mimic Saleh’s 49ers units. Rather, it is beginning to look like the defensive roster features a healthy blend of ideas from both Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, an early sign that Saleh is going to avoid being too hands-on and instead focus on giving his staff the chance to play a major role in the formation of the team’s identity.
One part of the defense where it seems clear that Ulbrich’s ideas are at the forefront is the linebacker position. The Jets spent a pair of Day 3 draft selections on two very similar linebacker prospects, Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen, a pair of safety/linebacker hybrids who each played a wide variety of defensive roles in college and project as small, athletic, and versatile WILL linebackers in the Jets’ scheme.
Of all the linebackers in the NFL right now, the one that most closely resembles what the Jets appear to be going for with Nasirildeen and Sherwood is Foyesade Oluokun, the Atlanta Falcons’ starting WILL linebacker. Ulbrich was Oluokun’s linebackers coach throughout the past three seasons, helping the sixth-round pick out of Yale become a key rotational piece as a rookie and develop into a starter by his third season.
In terms of his background, build, and utilization, Oluokun is the exact player that the Jets appear to be trying to get in Nasirildeen and Sherwood.
Oluokun weighed in at 215 pounds last season, making him the lightest inside linebacker to appear in a game in the entire league. That’s directly in line with Nasirildeen (215 pounds) and Sherwood (216 pounds). Like the two Jets draft picks, Oluokun has a background at the safety position, playing the position in high school before transitioning in college.
Taking advantage of Oluokun’s tweener size and athletic advantage, the Falcons deployed him all over the field, utilizing him as one of the most versatile linebackers in the league. Oluokun lined up outside of the tackle box on 41.8% of his defensive snaps in 2020, the fourth-highest rate among 73 qualified linebackers. He lined up either in the slot, at free safety, or at outside cornerback on 18.0% of his snaps, the fifth-highest rate.
Here is a breakdown of Oluokun’s snap counts by alignment and where they ranked among linebackers:
- Box: 521 snaps (46th)
- Edge: 213 snaps (5th)
- Slot: 110 snaps (8th)
- Outside CB: 37 snaps (1st)
- Free safety: 14 snaps (5th)
In total, Oluokun played 374 snaps outside of the tackle box, third among all linebackers behind only Kyle Van Noy and K.J. Wright.
Oluokun was an every-down player in 2020, taking part in 96% of Atlanta’s defensive plays on average (counting out a game that he left early due to injury). And that is what the Jets are looking for – not a rotational chess piece, but a starter who has the versatility to sufficiently take on numerous assignments in coverage, allowing the team to remain in its 4-3 base package when the opponent throws out 11 personnel.
What Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich are trying to do, which is not totally unique in today’s game, is create a defense that doesn’t necessarily have to make personnel changes against 11 personnel. The lighter, coverage-first WILLs make that a possibility (Sherwood, Nasirildeen).
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) May 6, 2021
If you have a linebacker with the size, athleticism, and coverage skills of a safety, he doesn’t have to come off the field when the offense adds more speed to its lineup.
Let’s take a look at some examples of Oluokun in action to get an idea of the responsibilities that the Jets will likely be placing upon Nasirildeen and Sherwood.
The Chargers send out 11 personnel on this play, placing their tight end (Hunter Henry) in the slot. Oluokun takes Henry in off-man coverage, giving about four yards of cushion. Henry releases outside and gets Oluokun to turn his hips toward the sideline before cutting back inside. Oluokun makes an excellent speed turn to recover, flipping his hips inside and getting back on top of the route to erase some of the separation and contest the throw.
That play is a great example of the maneuverability a defense is afforded by having a starting linebacker who is athletic enough to do more than merely handle the most basic coverage assignments of the position. Most linebackers would never be asked to take on that assignment, but if you have one who can, it’s a huge boost. Having versatile players who can be trusted to do things beyond the general requirements of their position gives the defensive coordinator more options with how he can move his chess pieces around, increasing the unpredictability factor for the opposition.
This next play from Oluokun is another excellent showcase of a responsibility that teams could only ask of a linebacker with this type of unique skillset, a la Nasirildeen and Sherwood.