Falcons' Foyesade Oluokun out to validate Ivy Leaguers in NFL

Foyesade Oluokun (No. 23) was selected by the Falcons in the sixth round of this year's draft. Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Foyesade Oluokun has a little edginess in his tone and it's not because folks often mispronounce his name.

The Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker from Yale knows there's an undesirable label that follows him into the NFL; one that says Ivy League players are highly intelligent but not necessarily high-caliber athletes.

"Once they see you in the Ivy League, they shut off their brains like, 'These are not athletes like other schools are used to playing.' That's the stigma," Oluokun said. "I don't like it, personally, because I think there are a lot of athletes in the Ivy League. And long as we get our opportunity, is what it comes down to in the end. Yes, you kind of have to work harder for it. But hopefully, people are waking up to us."

Oluokun, a sixth-round draft pick, joined fifth-round wide receiver Justin Watson of Penn -- drafted by Tampa Bay -- as the only Ivy League players selected in this year's draft. It marked the 46th time multiple Ivy Leaguers have been drafted but the first time since 2013, when the trio of JC Tretter (Cornell), Kyle Juszczyk (Harvard) and Mike Catapano (Princeton) were selected by Green Bay, Baltimore and Kansas City, respectively. Twelve former Ivy League players were on active NFL rosters last season with two of them, fullbacks Juszczyk of the San Francisco 49ers and James Develin of the New England Patriots, earning Pro Bowl status.

Also of note, the Falcons signed linebacker Richard Jarvis from Brown as an undrafted free agent.

The Buccaneers now have three Ivy League offensive players on their roster, as Watson joins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and tight end Cameron Brate, both of Harvard. Fitzpatrick initially was a seventh-round pick of the Rams in 2005.

"There were scouts that came through, but I think the difficult thing in the Ivy League was our schedule was basically seven Ivy League opponents and some Patriot League opponents, so there aren't a lot of NFL prospects on the field," Fitzpatrick said. "Obviously in the SEC or a big-time conference, you are going to have people there watching other people and they can a glimpse of you.

"So the difficult thing, I think, was essentially there was me and maybe one or two other guys that were even on the NFL's radar at that point."

Ivy League schools have produced a pair of Pro Football Hall of Famers in former Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman from Columbia and former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker/guard Chuck Bednarik from Penn. And 10 Ivy League players have made the Pro Bowl in NFL history, including Luckman and Bednarik.

Despite those success stories, skepticism remains when analyzing the modern day Ivy League talent. One NFL executive said you never know what you're getting from an Ivy League player because "they are so underdeveloped."

Columbia's Al Bagnoli, the reigning league coach of the year, has seen some of the disregard up close for years. He had been the coach at Penn since 1992 before leaving for Columbia in 2015.

"I think [NFL evaluators], they kind of initially go into it with a little bit of a bias," Bagnoli said of the scouting process. "And then it's really critical for our kids to test exceptionally well. I think the NFL, at times, is so numbers-driven that you need a great workout to kind of validate the level of athlete that you may be, more so then someone coming from a more visible program like an Alabama, an Oklahoma, one of those.

"So I think there's a lot more pressure in the actual workout to put up numbers that validate what they're seeing on film and validate the type of athlete that they are."

Oluokun is the perfect example. He was bound for an Ivy League school coming out of high school in St. Louis, selecting to attend Yale over Harvard and Penn. He developed into a second-team, all-Ivy League performer, thanks, in part, to gaining an extra semester following a torn pectoral injury as a junior. Despite those accolades, he didn't generate a lot of interest at his own pro day at Yale. Oluokun attended a second pro day, hosted by Fordham University but held at Columbia, where he opened eyes by running the 20-yard cone drill in 4.12 seconds, running a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash, a posting a 10-3 broad jump.

There were about six scouts at Yale's pro day. At the one hosted by Fordham, where Oluokun completed his testing, there were more than 20. And then Oluokun started to get calls and line up visits. He then trained with a group of top draft prospects at Landow Sports Performance in Colorado, which helped not only get his name out there but helped get his body ready for the NFL.

"I went in the draft with no expectations," Oluokun said. "I was hearing people say, 'You might get drafted.' I wasn't going to go in like, 'I'm going to get drafted' and be let down at the end of the day. It's all about making the roster at the end of the day, whether you're drafted or undrafted."

Fitzpatrick brought up another interesting point related to the NFL's evaluation of Ivy League players. He said he got a lot questions about his true interest in pursuing an NFL career considering an Ivy League education offers other lucrative job options outside of football. He eventually sold evaluators on football being his immediate plan after college.

Agent Joe Linta, a former player and coach at Yale who has represented more than 20 Ivy League players, assures NFL teams his clients are football focused and NFL ready.

"Ivy League players have the smarts and toughness to succeed in the NFL," Linta said. "They are always great kids, and we love working with them. Many of them have passed on D-I scholarships to pursue an Ivy League education. When we do our film work and feel that an Ivy League player has NFL ability, we are virtually certain that he will be of exemplary character."

As for Oluokun, he also has a plan after earning his degree in Economics. He has a desire to be a general manager in the NFL some day, especially if someone can give him the opportunity to shadow and learn the intricacies of the business. But for now, his sole focus is making an impact for the Falcons.

"I know I can make one through special teams right away," he said. "I want to be all over the special teams: kick return, kickoff, punt, all of it. Try to fly down -- you know, I'm an athletic dude -- try to use my body in the best way possible to make tackles, make blocks. I love winning, so whatever coach wants me to do to win is what I do. Keep learning my role on defense as a linebacker and try to get myself in the game.

"And yes, my dream is to be in the financial side of sports. I'm good at analyzing things really well. So I can analyze players. If I understand those concepts and put money on top of it, I think I can do really well there."

Maybe Oluokun will find himself scouting the Ivy League one day. He knows first-hand there are talented athletes waiting to be discovered.