Atlanta Falcons offensive line could be a problem again in 2021
For what seems like the 100th season in a row, the Atlanta Falcons are entering the season with serious question marks on their offensive line.
On paper, the Atlanta Falcons have made serious investments and the unit should be a strength. Three first-round picks, two third-round picks, one fourth-round pick, and a handful of free agents are competing for starting positions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always ensure solidity.
Atlanta Falcons Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom are Pro Bowl-level talents
Jake Matthews is guaranteed to start at left tackle. He can struggle against elite pass rushers, particularly those who can utilize power moves. He’s a technician who isn’t built to handle a bull rush.
Matthews is a good LT, though, and has given the team stability at the position – something which they hadn’t previously had since Bob Whitfield departed after the 2003 season. He should continue to be a borderline top-10 player at the position.
Chris Lindstrom was a surprise pick for the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. An injury early in his rookie season wasn’t the start he was hoping for, but he’s gone from strength to strength since that point.
Lindstrom has established himself as one of the top young offensive linemen in the league and has locked down the right guard spot. Falcons fans know how good he is and it’s only a matter of time before he gets leaguewide recognition.
Kaleb McGary needs to get healthy and become more consistent for the Atlanta Falcons
The second player taken by the Atlanta Falcons in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft was just as surprising. Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn thought that Kaleb McGary would solve the team’s right tackle problem.
McGary has been virtually ever-present, starting 29 of 32 games since joining the team, but he still has work to do to prove to the organization that he deserves a long-term contract. On his best day, he’s physical, athletic, and capable of holding his own against elite pass rushers like Cameron Jordan.
On his worst day, he’s little more than a minor inconvenience for players looking to hit Matt Ryan.
Players develop at different speeds and McGary certainly shouldn’t be written off. The fact that he’s starting preseason on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list isn’t ideal. The nature of the injury is yet to be revealed, but the Falcons lack depth behind him. Matt Gono, last year’s swing tackle, has the talent to compete, but he’s expected to be on the sideline for an extended period of time.
If McGary isn’t ready for week one then options are limited. Rookie Jalen Mayfield played right tackle in college and has seen opportunities in training camp, but he has limitations at the position and was drafted to play left guard.
New signing Jason Spriggs has NFL experience at right tackle, having played there for the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, but he’s never been able to establish himself as a starter. McGary’s absence would mean a significant downgrade for the offensive line.
Question marks surround the Atlanta Falcons center and left guard positions
At center, the Falcons have a pair of young prospects competing to replace the long-time starter, Alex Mack. Both Matt Hennessy and Drew Dalman had similar draft profiles. Intelligent and athletic, but undersized players who can struggle against stronger, more powerful defensive linemen.
Hennessy struggled at left guard last year as a rookie but looked more comfortable in his natural position at center. He has started training camp working with the first-team offense, but only one player can play center and, with the number of needs on the roster, it seems unlikely that the team invested a fourth-round pick in
Dalman purely for him to be a backup. Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith clearly aren’t completely sold on Hennessy and it should be an open competition during preseason.
The left guard spot is another vacancy after last year’s starter James Carpenter was released in March. Both Hennessy and Gono are underwhelmed in their opportunities in 2020 and look to have been penciled into roles elsewhere.
Jalen Mayfield was drafted to play the position, but he has no experience of it and could face a lengthy transition process. The coaches will have to decide how beneficial it is to throw him into the fire and whether taking his lumps will benefit him in the long run. His primary competition comes from Josh Andrews.
Andrews is a veteran of the league but has struggled whenever he’s seen the field. His most extensive playing time was with the New York Jets in 2020, when he “earned” a PFF grade of 41.2. Carpenter, who was much maligned for his performances, graded out at 56.1, showing just how much trouble the Falcons will be in if Andrews is their best option.
It’s not impossible that the OL surprises us.
New Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford has a good reputation for developing players, and changing schemes to prioritize zone-blocking should improve the run blocking. That said, it could be a familiar story for Matt Ryan.
He’s spent much of his career trying to avoid pressure, and he’ll likely have to do so again.