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5 things to know about new 49ers CB Isaiah Oliver

Mar 15, 2023 at 5:39 PM--

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The 49ers added some help to their secondary on Wednesday with the signing of Isaiah Oliver, who comes to San Francisco after spending his first five NFL seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.

Oliver, 26, brings a good amount of experience to the 49ers and a versatility that is reminiscent of former 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward. But chances are, given Oliver's history, that he'll primarily get a look at the nickel spot, which is where Ward filled in during the 2022 season.

Here are some things to know about Oliver as he begins his time with the 49ers.

He's versatile, but nickel seems to be his fit

Oliver (6-0, 180) started his NFL career on the outside with the Falcons but has since been focused on the nickel spot and has also seen some snaps at safety along the way.

"I'm really big on just helping the defense in any way that I can, whether that's at nickel, whether that's outside or at safety," Oliver said in 2020, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Just being a DB and helping the team in any way that I can, really. Whatever fits best for that defense and that scheme and that week, honestly. Wherever that is, that's fine with me."

But while he can help out in multiple spots, nickel has been Oliver's best position in the NFL. As a matter of fact, it was a move to nickel after his second season that helped him rebound from a disappointing start to his career.

The shift to nickel put his career on the right path

Falcons fans had high hopes for Oliver after the team selected him in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. But some ups-and-downs over his first two seasons didn't exactly make him a fan favorite, according to beat reporter Tori McElhaney.

"Ever since coming onto the Falcons beat in 2020, I quickly noticed how little this fan base cared for Oliver," McElhaney wrote in 2021. "There were radio stations that wouldn't even say his name when the hosts were asking me about him. They would simply use his number as an identifier. As 2020 went on, I wondered about Oliver being the favored punchline of Falcons Twitter. He wasn't perfect at cornerback, far from it. And he struggled against certain teams. Quarterbacks had a 75.6 percent completion rate against Oliver, and receivers averaged 12.5 yards per catch."

Then came the move to nickel. Oliver began to thrive in his new role and soon became a fixture at the position.

"This year he came out, struggled a little bit outside, moved him inside," Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said in 2020, per the AJC. "He's developed into a communicator, a blitzer, a person that uses his hands and can do a couple of different things there."

In 2022, Oliver graded out at 77.9 for the season by Pro Football Focus. In a Week 16 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Oliver had nine tackles and a sack while drawing some heavy praise from now-retired Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

"He played one of the best defensive-back games since I've been around," Pees said, per the AJC. "He had a helluva game. Sack, a tackle for loss, a couple of PBUs. Playing nickel. Playing safety. I told him the other day, I've obviously been around a long time and had a lot of (defensive backs) and stuff, but that was as good of a performance from a defensive back that I can remember in a long, long time. Especially, from where he's coming back from injury and stuff like that. I just couldn't be prouder of the guy."

Oliver had 203 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two sacks, 34 passes defensed, and two interceptions in 62 games (38 starts) in Atlanta. And, as Pees mentioned, he also had to overcome a significant injury along the way.

* A major injury is in his recent history: Oliver's success at nickel took a detour when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 4 of the 2021 season. The injury sidelined him for the remainder of 2021 and part of 2022.

The Falcons missed Oliver when he was out of the lineup and were unable to find someone to fully replace him. Meanwhile, Oliver seemed to struggle at first with what he faced after tearing his ACL.

"It was a lot to really understand, a lot to really grasp at the time," Oliver said, per ESPN. "And it just seemed like it was going to be impossible to get back to where I was at."

Oliver was in the final year of his rookie contract when he sustained the injury. But the Falcons gave him another chance on a one-year deal, and eventually he returned to an impactful level.

"When we lost him, you guys saw it," Pees said in October 2022, per "We had a different nickel almost every game somebody tried it, and it just never had the cohesiveness…just the communication, the verbal part of it was just so much different. It's really remarkable."

An athletic background but an unheralded recruit

Oliver slid under the radar as a high school recruit at Brophy Prep in Phoenix, Arizona, with his lone scholarship offers coming from the University of Colorado and the University of New Mexico. But because he was a standout decathlete, Oliver also had interest from colleges in track and field.

Oliver's father, Muhammad Oliver, was a decathlete at the University of Oregon and also played in the NFL as a cornerback with the Broncos, Chiefs, Dolphins, Redskins, and Packers. Oliver's uncle, Damon Mays, was an NFL wide receiver with the Redskins and Houston Oilers.

Oliver stood out on the football field and on the track during his three years at Colorado. He was a two-time All-Pac-12 winner in the decathlon and put up the highest point totals in the event for a Colorado athlete in over 40 years. Oliver posted 82 tackles, three interceptions and 29 passes defensed in three seasons with the Buffaloes and was named first-team All-Pac-12 in 2017 before declaring early for the NFL Draft.

Remember me?

49ers fans may or may not remember Oliver from a play he made in 2022. Oliver made this leaping interception of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, halting a 49ers drive right before halftime.

The Falcons went on to win that game 28-14, handing the 49ers one of their four losses on the 2022 regular season. Oliver made three tackles in the game, and his interception wound up being the only one he had in 2022.


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