Mykal Walker, Rashaan Evans are the new sheriffs in middle of Falcons defense

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH — As the Falcons inch closer to the regular season, the middle of the defense is starting to take on a new look.

Inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker are patrolling the middle of the unit.

“I love to be able to have two really good run-stopping-type linebackers who are able to run and hit and be able to be in coverage,” said Evans, who came over from Tennessee as a free agent. “I think that’s what we possess. It’s really exciting to be amongst another really good linebacker. Mykal has developed into the guy that he is today.”

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Walker said he was ready to start last season but has been waiting for the opportunity.

“He’s able to move and do all of those things he’s doing now,” Evans said. “I can’t wait for everybody to see what he’s going to do this season.”

Foye Oluokun, who led the NFL in tackles last season, left for Jacksonville in free agency, and Deion Jones is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Jones is expected back by the start of the regular season, which wouldn’t allow time for him to compete for his former starting position.

Last season, Oluokun was the team’s signal-caller. Walker has taken over that role.

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“Obviously, he’s got more confidence,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “You hear him at practice, and that’s what we push these guys to do. Great defenses usually have guys that are great communicators, whether you’re in football or basketball.”

Walker, who was a fourth-round draft choice (119th overall) in 2020 out of Fresno State, has taken to his new role.

“So, you hear him out at practice, and it’s not just noise,” Smith said. “What he’s saying makes sense, so we’re going to continue to push that, and hopefully he can grow into some sort of leadership role there.”

The chemistry between Evans and Walker was evident on the practice field Tuesday.

With the first-team defense going against the second-team offense late in practice, a player went in motion. Walker made the call, and Walker and Evans shuffled two steps in unison.

The play went back to the opposite side, and they both got in position to make the play, with Evans fighting off a block from a guard.

Later on a pass play, they both fluidly dropped into their zone coverages.

“I think it’s coming (along) good,” Evans said. “I think right now, we can’t be impatient as far as development not only with myself (but) also with other players. We are just feeling things out.”

Evans, a first-round pick (22nd overall) in 2018 from Alabama, played for defensive coordinator Dean Pees in Tennessee.

The first-team defense gave up a touchdown in its brief appearance against Detroit.

“You kind of want to have all the mistakes that you want to make right now,” Evans said. “You want to try to go and get rid of all those jitters, get the rust off.”

The linebackers are looking forward to practicing against the Jets on Friday and Saturday and in the game Monday night.

“I will say for right now, just prepare for it like it’s a real game,” Evans said. “Even though it’s (exhibition) season. It doesn’t count. You still want to allow yourself to kind of prepare yourself to get a routine.”

The defense is hoping to have a better showing against the Jets.

“We want to continue to build confidence,” Evans said. “Anytime you get a win, I don’t care whether it’s for real or not for real, you want to gain that type of confidence. It gives confidence to younger guys who have not played in the league that, ‘Hey, we can win.’ Whatever I did in this game, I can do it again and make sure that I do do it again when it is time to play.”

The moving of the signal-calling helmet to Walker has been in the works.

“Really coming out of last year,” Pees said. “I thought when we did walk-throughs over here – even though he wasn’t a starter, I felt like he communicated better than any of the starters did. When we did put him in, I thought he communicated well. He was always on top of it, was into it.”

The Falcons gave him the helmet early in the offseason.

“As soon as we started getting prepared for this season, even before OTAs, we already had him marked down as a guy to call the huddle,” Pees said.

The Falcons are expecting big things from Walker.

“Mentally, Mykal Walker is top-shelf,” Pees said. “He really is smart, football-smart, understands and communicates. I have no qualms whatsoever about him understanding this defense. Understanding the position sometimes is still a little bit of a work in progress, but he’s busting his butt, and he’s doing well.”

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