FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It was a big statement less than midway through Adetokunbo Ogundeji’s rookie season. The Atlanta Falcons’ fifth-round pick had been a bit of a surprise then, a late-round selection finding his way into the outside linebacker rotation so early into his career.
Day 3 picks in NFL drafts tend to be developmental projects unless there’s a specific role in mind. Get something out of them as a rookie? Great. But the second and third years is where the hope for true value comes.
Which made what outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said in October all the more eye-raising.
“As all these players move in and out of the building, at some point we’re going to ask Ade to be the bellcow in the room,” Monachino said. “And we’re preparing him for that right now.”
There wasn’t a timeline, but that’s bold praise publicly for a 23-year-old who was taken with the 182nd pick last spring. For a player who had 17 total tackles for loss in his college career at Notre Dame and 13 total sacks. For a player who had one sack, two quarterback hits and five tackles for loss as a rookie in Atlanta.
But it offers a glimpse of Ogundeji’s potential. Of the role the Falcons see and the hope they have for a player with immense potential.
Considering the structure of the roster and what the Falcons have both returning and not, no player’s offseason may be more important than Ogundeji’s. For him, it represents a chance to improve enough to strengthen a spot on Atlanta’s roster -- and take a step toward Monachino’s future vision for him.
For the Falcons, it could provide answers to at least one of the team’s myriad issues this offseason: finding a reliable edge-setter at outside linebacker who can double as a pass-rusher. Even though the stats may not have come last season -- in reality, they didn’t come for any Falcons outside linebacker -- Ogundeji was learning while playing.
“We haven’t been disappointed in that area,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said during the season. “Like any rookie, he has a lot to learn and you’re seeing everything for the first time and it just takes a while.
“But I think for what we ask of him and what we expected, he’s living up to expectations.”
Expectations can be tricky things. What one person or group expects can be different than either the reality of what can be provided or what the individual expects of himself. Finding that harmony -- that balance of push, prod, pressure and pull back -- is key to any development for a player.
Ogundeji appeared to understand that from the beginning. Perhaps it was his path at Notre Dame, where he wasn’t an immediate starter playing behind NFL-level defensive ends. Or how he taught himself to think and prepare through compartmentalization as he worked through playing in college. Or the mentorship he received as a rookie from veterans Steven Means, Brandon Copeland and Dante Fowler Jr.
From Copeland, he inquired about his positional flexibility -- he has played everywhere from defensive end to middle linebacker along with special teams -- and how he has adapted to different systems. From Means, he learned how to play different positions across the defensive line and often went to him for advice on off-field adjustments from college to the pros and becoming an adult in the NFL. From Fowler, he learned by watching some of his pass-rush moves.
“You get a lot of different perspectives of the game so I’m learning more, not just from my position but a lot of other positions, which is great to understand,” Ogundeji said. “In the position that we play, you have to learn not just what you do but what everybody else does.”
The learning process was gradual. He can’t pinpoint a week or a stretch where it fall fell into place -- although the Jets game where he had his only sack of the season along with two quarterback hits was notable. Instead it was a combination of everything, the reps in practice, the plays in games, the extra work he’d do on the side before and after practice with veterans trying to pick small pieces from what they do in order to eventually incorporate it himself.
It has given Ogundeji a base. He knows he still needs improvement with his hands in order to shed attempted blocks from tackles. That he needs to get better at getting upfield faster to attack opposing quarterbacks.
These are growth points, though. Areas the Falcons -- and Ogundeji -- believe he can eventually excel in. The stuff they can’t teach -- some of his athletic traits, including his 6-foot-4½ height and 35½-inch arms and his willingness to work and do anything – is what makes them believe he can eventually be special.
Eventually carry the Falcons’ outside linebacker room.
“Ade is an overachiever, which is huge. That’s a good trait,” Monachino said. “We all understand that there are people that meet expectations, people that overachieve and people that underachieve. Ade is an overachiever and there are some measurables that he has been blessed with, there are some things from an experience standpoint that he’s still working on.
“I don’t have one, there’s not one situation that comes in a situation or in a game that I would be concerned to play Ade.”