The three traits Jaylinn Hawkins looks to bring to the Falcons

Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins (32) during a raining camp practice in Flowery Branch on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins (32) during a raining camp practice in Flowery Branch on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Jaylinn Hawkins picked two talented safeties to emulate in Ed Reed and Sean Taylor. When studying these players in his younger days, Hawkins noticed they played the game in similar ways.

They were physical. They played with a lot of intelligence. They had a knack for intercepting passes.

Hawkins, one of the Falcons’ two fourth-round selections in this year’s NFL draft, has tried to mold those aspects into his own playing style. When it comes to being physical, Hawkins said that’s an element he’s always wanted to be known for. In high school, Hawkins played receiver and enjoyed mixing it up with defensive backs. As a defender, landing hard hits is something he hopes to do in each possession.

“It just comes from being me. I’m a real aggressive guy,” Hawkins said. “I like to hit. I like being out there having fun. That’s just me being me. I’ve always been like that, even when I played offense. I was a real aggressive blocker. That’s just how I always played ball.”

When it comes to his intelligence, Hawkins said that playing offense and defense made him a smarter player. When he played receiver at Buena Park High School in Orange County, California, he was technically minded. Therefore, when he switched fully to defense, it wasn’t hard for him to notice certain tendencies from opposing receivers.

He also is one to dive into the team playbook on his own accord. With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down OTAs and mandatory minicamp, Hawkins said he ensured he was as prepared as possible once he was able to step foot in the Falcons’ team facility.

“I went about it in a way where I was going to study as much as I can and get the system down as fast as I can,” Hawkins said. “When I first got out here, we went through walk-throughs. Of course, I stumbled and messed up a little bit, but I started to get used to it and get comfortable. All my preparation and everything I studied for came into play. As soon as that happened, I’ve gotten used to it, and I’m just out there getting comfortable. But I’m also still learning because I’m still a rookie.”

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he knew beforehand that Hawkins was a smart football player who played in a physical manner. But Quinn noted those aspects of Hawkins were better than he expected once he saw him up-close and in person.

“He’s a much stronger player than I remembered from Cal,” Quinn said. “He can play down in the box, he can use his hands on tight ends and backs. That’s the kind of stuff that he would match up on. I really feel like he’s settling in as a strong-safety role. A player that can play down in the box.

“I’m not going to say it surprised me, it didn’t, but just his ability to pick it up fast – this guy is a real football guy – and then the physicality of him. Now that I’ve had him here, it’s more than I thought.”

Hawkins hasn’t picked off a pass yet in practice but noted he’s had his share of breakups. At California, Hawkins recorded 10 career interceptions, which included a 2018 season that saw him tally six. His one-handed interception against Stanford last year went viral and was an ESPN “SportsCenter” top-10 play. On that particular play, Hawkins made the correct read to drop in the middle of the field to secure the interception.

Hawkins knows those reads need to happen even faster in the NFL.

A couple of weeks ago, Hawkins said he noticed the game beginning to slow for him at this level.

“Playing the position I play you have to be really disciplined with your eyes and what you’re looking at with certain keys,” Hawkins said. “I started to narrow my vision on the certain keys and that allowed for me to play faster. Not only that, I study my playbook and I have to keep studying so I can play even faster. I still have a lot of work to do, but I feel I’m at a pretty good spot right now and I like how I’m progressing.”

Hawkins has an experienced crew at safety assisting in his development. With Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee at the position, Hawkins’ early role appears to be on special teams as he learns the ropes of being an NFL safety. But this year of preparation could prepare Hawkins for 2021 as the Falcons have some key decisions to make next offseason.

Neal and Kazee are entering the final years of their rookie contracts. Allen will be entering the final year of his contract, which could be voided to save $6.25 million against the salary cap. While there may not be a starting role in 2020, it’s possible one is on the horizon a year from now.

As it stands, Hawkins is happy to have a veteran crew to learn from. And when it’s his time, he’ll hope to showcase his ability as an intelligent, physical and ball-hawking safety.

“I’m thankful and blessed to be here,” Hawkins said. “I learned a lot from the vets, learned a lot from the older guys. Made a few plays while I was in, getting in the rotation. I’ve been getting accommodated to the team and getting in the process to get ready for a game.”

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