Updated 4/25/2020: This article has been updated after an interview from Jaylinn Hawkins
Former Cal football safety Jaylinn Hawkins became the second Cal alum to be selected in the 2020 NFL draft, when the Atlanta Falcons unexpectedly opted for a safety over a running back or cornerback in the fourth round. One of the set pieces on the gridiron of California Memorial Stadium and especially within its secondary, Hawkins has a nose for the football and making clutch plays.
In four complete seasons at Cal, Hawkins was one of the standout leaders of a Cal defensive backs unit nicknamed the “Takers”, nabbing 10 interceptions to go with 158 tackles and 17 passes defended during his time as a Bear. In 2018, Hawkins led the Pac-12 in interceptions with his six picks, a feat made possible by his astute knowledge of the game on offense and defense — he was initially recruited by Cal as a receiver and spent some time training as a cornerback, which has translated into his ability to rob players of the opposing team with utmost stealth and precision.
“It’s a blessing. I might end up crying right now,” Hawkins said following his selection. “I can’t explain it. My phone rang, and then the call ended, and I’m like, ‘Hold on, am I getting a call right now? From Atlanta, Georgia?’ ”
Known by his teammates as “Ball Hawk,” Hawkins set a bowl record when he recorded three interceptions in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, earning Most Valuable Defensive Player of the Game honors in Cal’s 10-7 loss to TCU.
Hawkins is the fifth player taken by the Falcons in this draft and their second of the fourth round. Atlanta has focused predominantly on defense, with four of its five picks going towards bolstering that side of the ball, including first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who Hawkins will join in the secondary. The Falcons surrendered 244.9 passing yards per game last season and had a -5 turnover differential. Hawkins will likely back up Atlanta starter Keanu Neal, who has a very similar playing style to Hawkins, though he has struggled with major injuries over the past couple of years.
“In the backfield, they got good (defensive backs), they just got Todd Gurley, so the team is building, and I’m looking to be a part of that build,” Hawkins added.
According to ESPN, Hawkins was not listed in the top-15 safeties available when the Falcons snapped him up, and his selection becomes surprisingly before former star linebacker Evan Weaver. Fellow former Cal safety Ashtyn Davis was the first Bear to go when the New York Jets nabbed him in the third round, but few could have expected Hawkins to follow suit so early.
“It was just a brotherhood back there. We really grinded, really put in for this, and this is crazy — from being back there with each other on kickoff with each other, just everything — it just hit my heart,” Hawkins said of his former teammate and fellow draftee Davis. “This is just the beginning, but it means a lot.”
The “Ball Hawk” becoming a Falcon marks a strategic selection and illustrates that those in tune to Hawkins’ skills know the value he will add to Atlanta’s defense.