When we rolled toward the 2012 season, we all knew that Sam Baker wasn't the most stable option at left tackle and Tyson Clabo had right tackle pretty well locked down. Coming into 2013, Sam Baker is the most stable option, and Tyson Clabo is gone.
Yes, things have changed on the ends of the Falcon offensive line. You might even say it's a line in flux, especially on the right side. Whether that will translate into short-term success or failure, and especially whether it will result in long-term success or failure, remains to be seen.
What we do know is who is on the roster at tackle for the upcoming season. Let's break them down.
Left Tackle Starter: Sam Baker
Baker is a bit of an oddity in that he had a successful rookie season, was mostly average to mediocre the next three seasons, and then had a slightly above average season in 2012. Left tackles don't usually follow that particular trajectory.
Baker's the team's tackle over the long haul, having just inked a fresh contract to protect Matt Ryan's blindside. Whether that deal is a good one or not depends largely on what version of Baker shows up. If it's 2012 or better, it's a little pricey but fair for a capable starting left tackle. If it's the years before that, uh oh.
You don't want that kind of uncertainty of your left tackle, but that's where we're at. A healthy Baker is a capable run blocker and serviceable pass protector or better, and if his back is in good shape, there's no reason to believe he won't turn in another solid season.
Let's hope for the best Baker can give.
Right Tackle Starter: Lamar Holmes
I'm guessing, here, but the pieces would seem to fit.
Holmes is a quality pass blocker who needed some work coming out of college to be more than that. While he was more of a left tackle in his pre-NFL days, he'll likely slot on the right side for the Falcons in 2013. His imposing size, strength and athleticism for a tackle make him an awfully intriguing prospect there, and I firmly believe the Falcons were willing to part ways with Clabo in part because they thought Holmes was ready.
The problem is, we don't know that he's ready, and we don't know if he'll even with the competition at right tackle this summer. The tools are all there and Holmes is, by all accounts, a fast learner. That doesn't guarantee success, and even if Holmes blows us all away in 2013, it's not particularly likely he'll be as good as Clabo right now.
There's a world of upside here, and if everything breaks right, he'll win the job and show that talent immediately. Our fingers are firmly crossed.
Reserve: Mike Johnson
Johnson could basically be the top backup across the board for the Falcons. Such is his versatility.
MJ came out of Alabama as a mauling guard and at this stage in his NFL career, the run-blocking role is where he'll make his money. He's got a real shot at winning the right tackle job.
Johnson has been hampered in the past by injuries and competition in his way, but this if the first off-season where he'll have a real crack at a starting job. He's smaller than Lamar Holmes—which is a bit like stacking an elephant next to an aircraft carrier, but still—and he doesn't have the reputation for being a pass blocker that Holmes does. Still, he's reasonably young and clearly has some untapped potential, so don't rule him out for a larger role.
If Johnson does settle in as the top backup on both sides of the line, he'll be a mighty useful player even if no one is injured. He can catch touchdowns, after all.
Possibility: Garrett Reynolds
I'd be remiss if I didn't toss Reynolds' name into the hat. While Reynolds is the favorite for right guard duties, he was drafted as a tackle and still has fairly prototypical tackle size for the position.
If the Falcons are serious about opening right tackle to competition, Reynolds should be in the mix. Given his surprisingly strong performance in limited snaps at right guard just a year ago, he might have a shot at winning it. If he does start at right guard, he won't be in play as a right tackle.
It's clear, looking at this depth chart, that the Falcons don't have enough tackles on this roster. They could always kick an existing player outside as a reserve, and I actually think the Baker and Holmes duo could be quite effective in 2013. The problem is that there are unknowns, relatively little depth and Baker's past performance issues to consider here. Based on those concerns, it's tough to give the position more than a cautiously optimistic grade, especially before the draft.