Given the disastrous nature of the 2013 season, it is normal that fans of the Falcons would look for the proverbial scapegoat. Some fans rightly point out the rash of major injuries, while others still point to coaching or the front office. One thing all fans seem united on, though, is the dreadful performance of the offensive line.
Matt Ryan has already been sacked a career high 30 times this season, with 4 more games to go. That doesn't even take into account the number of pressures and hits he's faced as well. In the light of that dreadful performance, one would be forgiven if they wanted to take the nuclear option and blow up the entire line. However, as I see it, there are some myths floating around that are skewing the perception of where this line is really at and what our needs will be for 2014. With that in mind, here are some myths (in my mind) that need to be exposed to reality.
The Falcons Haven't Invested Draft Picks in This Line
Let's start with the obvious one, because I see it said repeatedly but it just doesn't match up to reality. Never mind the fact that if a GM spent his 1st and 2nd rounders on OL prospects for 3 straight years, he'd be fed to the lions. Here's the reality of our current line:
Baker - 1st round
Blalock - 2nd round
Hawley - 4th round
Konz - 2nd round
Holmes - 3rd round
Mike Johnson - 3rd round
Reynolds - 5th round
Say what you will, but the Falcons have invested some early round picks into the guys currently on the roster. And yes, I do know that Blalock was brought in before TD/Smitty, to be clear.
Whether these guys have panned out is a different matter. Baker has been injured for an extended stretch, while Johnson has had some really bad luck.
But to say this team hasn't invested picks on the line just isn't accurate.
Blalock is Grossly Overpaid
Over the past year, I've seen this conversation flare up some as well. And make no mistake, Blalock is very handsomely paid for an offensive guard. But here's something else to consider: not only has he been our best offensive lineman this year, he's one of the top 10 best Guards in the league right now (according to PFF).
If we look at the Blalock contract compared to two other guards currently in the top 10, we'll get a better feel of where he really stands.
Blalock: 6 yrs, 38M / 11M bonus / 16M guaranteed / 2013-14 - 4.5M / 2015 - 4.75M / 2016 - 6.15M
Ben Grubbs: 5yrs, 36M / 10M bonus / 15.9 guaranteed / 2013 - 1.2M / 2014 - 6M / 2015 - 6.5M / 2016 - 7.2M
Andy Levitre: 6yrs, 46.8M / 10.5M bonus / 2013 - 2.5M / 2014-2017 - 6.5M
As you can see, Blalock is right in line with the pay of some of his top 10 counterparts. You may want to argue whether he's a top 10 G or not, but in a year where everyone around him has changed, he's still performed at a level that puts him close - and that's saying something.
So while it's quite possibly the Falcons start looking for his long-term replacement in the next couple of years, we should all be grateful we've got a quality player like Blalock right now - and at a price that is reasonable for the current market.
We Should Replace At Least 3 Guys on This Line Next Year
On average, I've seen most fans calling for the replacement of a minimum of 2 guys, with 3 being a more common number. Some have even called for 4 players hitting the road, with Blalock being one of the few on the keep list. And while I agree this line absolutely needs some improvements, the idea of replacing 3 guys is just not feasible and is not likely to happen.
Let's start with this: the most obvious position of need right now is right guard. Both Reynolds and Konz have been revolving doors this year. If you can believe it, Konz has been even worse at RG than he was at Center.
Moving over one spot, the next position most people think about is right tackle. The current starter - Jeremy Trueblood - is a rental veteran who will likely not be on the roster next year. But before we go demanding an outside replacement for this spot, let's consider the current roster. Here's a fact: Sam Baker will be back next year, whether you like it or not. The front office and coaching staff are committed to him. And frankly, when he's fully healthy, he is an average LT - which is all we really need. So, that leaves Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder as potential options and Mike Johnson as an outside option (if he's resigned).
The reality is that Holmes - after the improvement he's shown this year - will likely get the opportunity. And lest you tremble in fear, I point you to the game earlier this year against Carolina. It was one of the best performances out of our OL all year and it featured Baker at LT and Holmes at RT. Ryan was sacked just once in that game and hurried a total of 8 times. And that was against a very good front 7. We still don't know what we have in Schraeder, but early looks have indicated he's - at worst - a valuable backup, with the potential for more.
Looking at the Center position, it's clear that Joe Hawley should have been put into the lineup much sooner than he was. He has been solid at pass blocking and has shown the nastiness that fans love to see out of their linemen. While he may not be a long-term option at the position (I still believe Konz can turn the corner), he's a "good enough" option going into the 2014 season.
With all of that said, the only position on the line that I see needing an immediate upgrade for is at RG. Teams like the Saints have shown that if you have good interior line play, you can settle for average or just below average tackle play. And the Falcons only need our line to be average in order for this offense to be a top 5 offense again (which is what they were in 2012).
The Falcons Should Have Seen This Coming
Of all the lines I've seen over the season, this is the one that I think is the most out of whack. Many fans have claimed that there was an outright disregard for the quality of the offensive line from our front office - which I discussed in the first myth above. Others have said that the quality of the line was clearly not sufficient from the beginning of the season, which is 20/20 hindsight working overtime.
Here are some realities we need to remember about the line coming into 2013:
* Our intended starter at RT - Mike Johnson - went down with a freakish injury during camp. He had been groomed over the past few years and looked to be settling in before the injury. Some have claimed he had an injury history, but the reality is that the only prior injury he dealt with was a severe concussion which put him on IR a couple of years ago.
* Most fans and analysts all believed that Konz would be - at the very least - a decent replacement for the 36 year old stalwart Todd McClure at Center. At 36, McClure was still playing decently, but almost everyone felt that the Falcons needed to get younger at this critical position.
* Before his injury in 2012, Garrett Reynolds was having a very solid season at RG. At the very least, a return to form would have meant having an average RG as a starter, which would be a huge upgrade over what we have now.
* Sam Baker had his best year ever in 2012 and looked to have finally gotten over his recurring back problems, which incidentally, is not the issue he has dealt with this year.
As you can see, while we were not likely going to have a top 10 OL in 2013, there was little reason to believe they were going to be a disaster either. The four points above point to four different positions on our line being impacted - truly a perfect storm.
When Johnson went down with injury, the market for tackles in free agency was lacking, to say the least. And while Trueblood as been mostly bad in his time here, the original plan was to let Holmes develop at the position while giving him help from chips and extra linemen on the right side.
So, while the line has been mostly horrible this year, it's important to remember how we really got here. Claiming negligence from our front office and coaching staff is ignoring the reality of some of the things that went terribly wrong during the year.
Don't get me wrong - this offensive line is one of our biggest issues right now, with the defensive line being a close second (if not the prime issue). And while I understand the hesitancy to bring back Baker, it's almost a foregone conclusion that he'll be back. Guys like Blalock and Hawley are solid and will likely return, leaving our biggest problems at RG and RT, with the latter likely being manned by a constantly improving Lamar Holmes.
So as we look toward the 2014 season, it's important to keep all of this in mind because the overhaul that many are hoping for is not likely going to happen - and may not be necessary.