Let's Talk Falcons: The Offensive Line, what should we expect to be different in 2014?
Hello fellow Falcoholics! I am a frequent viewer and commenter here on SB Nation, and I have been thinking for some time of writing a couple of fanposts with my thoughts and observations on the Falcons offseason thus far. Naturally I can't put all my thoughts into comments, so I present to you: Let's Talk Falcons. This week I'll be discussing the Falcons' revamped OL and of course, what we should expect to see from them in Week 1 and the rest of the season. So pull up a chair, stay awhile and listen, as I dive into a unit that many would lovingly describe as "a raging dumpster-fire" just a few months ago.
2013: The Year of the Voodoo
Naturally, before I can talk about just how much better the OL is this year, I need to briefly speak on the state of the OL last year. Let's just start at the beginning, however painful it may be.
Our season started with optimism for most Falcon fans. 10 yards and 1 turf monster away from the Super Bowl. I am of the belief that we would have dismantled Joe Flacco and his Raven buddies in the big game, despite how amazingly elite he is. But it wasn't meant to be.
The FO played fast and loose with the OL in the offseason. They didn't believe RT Tyson Clabo was worth his salt, so they cut him. C Todd McClure retired. Faith was put into our developing depth players: RT Mike Johnson and C Peter Konz. They also put faith in RG Garrett Reynolds and were depending on LT Sam Baker to stay healthy and LG Justin Blalock to stay solid. It's hard to say exactly where this whole plan fell apart.
It started with a freak training camp injury. Mike Johnson, who was penciled in as the starter, would be out for the year. Thrust into the limelight now was OT Lamar Holmes, a second year 3rd round pick who would be depended on to man RT. At this point on the Falcoholic there was a hint of caution, but most of us still believed the line would at least be serviceable. We were wrong.
Holmes, RGGR, and Konz immediately began "stinking-it-up". Baker was injured early on and played terribly in the very, very limited number of snaps he received. Before long Baker was on IR and Holmes was manning LT. Our "serviceable" OL quickly became one of the worst units in the league. QB Matt Ryan ran for his life, a lot. We had no push and no ground game. When you're playing a guy at RT who's named after an HBO TV show that takes place in Louisiana, there is no explanation for this season other than some type of Taint voodoo.
In reality, this unit probably would have been in the bottom third of the league no matter what. Regardless, it was obvious that the FO mishandled the OL and that something would have to be done in 2014 if we wanted to keep Matt Ryan alive and well.
Thanks to user JackAdamParker for posting a PFF breakdown of all our FAs! If you want to know more about player statistics, check out his incredibly detailed post here: http://www.thefalcoholic.com/2014/3/12/5500034/pff-breakdown-of-fa-signings
For posterity, let us examine the PFF grades for the Falcons starting (i.e. "best") OL at the conclusion of 2013:
LT: Ryan Shraeder (-2.3), Sam Baker IR (-14.4)
LG: Justin Blalock (+6.8)
C: Joe Hawley (+0.1), Peter Konz (-29.7)
RG: Harland Gunn (+1.2), Garrett Reynolds (+2.8)
RT: Lamar Holmes (-32.3), Jeremy Trueblood (-2.9)
As you can see, Lamar Holmes was incredibly awful, with Peter Konz in a close second. The difference between Konz and Holmes is that Holmes improved throughout the year. RGGR somehow posted a positive grade (huh?), Hawley held his own at C, and Blalock was his usual solid self. Shraeder showed some promise as depth at LT (he was better than Holmes, certainly) and Gunn actually showed he can be a passable NFL guard. Despite how terrible our line was as a whole, the experience and evaluation of our depth OL players will be valuable in the future. Speaking of that, on to 2014!
2014: The Year of Equal Parts Hope and Despair
Alright, let's just say this is a working title. Why, you may ask? Because none of us have even the slightest idea how the season will turn out, particularly so early into the offseason. But when has that ever stopped a sports writer from projecting something?
The FO obviously took 2013 to heart and realized that they had to get tougher on both sides of the ball in order to compete at the highest levels of the NFL. Anyone who has watched the Falcons the last few years knows that the team can out-scheme and out-play most regular season teams with a little luck. Yet every time we reach the playoffs, our offense and defense run out of tricks by the second half. It is at that point that we are simply overpowered and the games slip through our fingers. TD and Coach Smith have apparently had enough, and followed through on their promise to get bigger and stronger at the line of scrimmage. They started by signing a new OL Coach in Mike Tice, and a new DL Coach in Bryan Cox.
C Joe Hawley was resigned to a 2-year deal with the expectation to hold down the fort there. At the beginning of free agency, the FO was quick to address what was arguably the weakest position on the OL in signing OG Jon Asamoah from KC. They also went out and signed some veteran depth in former first round OT/OG Gabe Carimi, and resigned injured OT/OG Mike Johnson to a 1-year "prove-it" deal. In the 2014 NFL Draft, the Falcons made OT Jake Matthews the #6 pick, catching a potential Pro Bowl player without sacrificing any picks. In short, they were very active in addressing this unit in the past few months.
While it's obviously too early to determine the winners of the camp battles, I'm going to list the current rostered O-linemen and my predictions for the starting lineup.
Players on Roster by Primary Position (alternate position)
OT: Sam Baker, Jake Matthews, Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson (OG), Ryan Shraeder, Gabe Carimi (OG)
OG: Justin Blalock, Jon Asamoah, Harland Gunn, Adam Replongle (DT?)
C: Joe Hawley, Peter Konz (OG), James Stone (OG) (2014 UDFA)
As you can see, we have a lot of depth on the roster right now. Unlike last year, there will be some camp battles and real competition for quality depth. This, in my opinion, bodes well for 2014.
Now I shall use heightened powers of prediction and premonition to bring you this projected depth chart (with PFF grades!) for the 2014 Offensive Line! Take a look at how it compares to last season.
LT: Sam Baker (2012 grade: +12.5), Mike Johnson (2012 grade: +2.7)
LG: Justin Blalock (+6.8), Gabe Carimi (-3.3)
C: Joe Hawley (+0.1), Peter Konz (-29.7)
RG: Jon Asamoah (+6.6), Harland Gunn (+1.2)
RT: Jake Matthews (rookie, projected 0.0), Lamar Holmes (-32.3)
While our depth in a few areas is a little scary (i.e. Konz, Holmes), the starting lineup is immensely improved. We should expect an improved OL compared to last year, that much is certain. How exactly the line will improve is anyone's guess, but there are a few clear advantages.
First of all, this line is immensely better with a healthy Baker manning LT. If Baker is healthy, he is an above average LT. Will he stay healthy? Maybe, maybe not. But we're going to go into this season expecting a recovery on his part. Second, the biggest weaknesses on this OL have been addressed with a top FA acquisition (RG Jon Asamoah) and a resigning (C Joe Hawley). Third, we now have proven and tested depth behind our starters. Despite Holmes' abysmal play at LT, he showed flashes of being a decent backup RT. Gunn showed, IMO, that he can be a solid backup OG. Konz was...terrible, but here's hoping Tice gets him into shape. We also have two players that can play OT/OG in Mike Johnson and Gabe Carimi. Johnson was the starter at RT last season and should be valuable starter-quality depth, Carimi is a versatile backup with upside that Tice thinks he can tap.
To sum it up, the line is completely revamped from the past season. Not only are the starters better, the depth is better too.
What can we expect from the Falcons' OL in 2014?
With the knowledge that our OL is vastly more talented and seasoned than last year's squad, what tangible on-field results can we expect this season? The answer is two-fold, in my humble opinion.
1. Vastly improved Pass Protection
If you look at the Falcons' offense the past few years, it is painfully obvious that the passing game is the focus. Last year it was emphasized to the point that we ran the lowest percentage of running plays in the entire NFL. This is not a good thing, but there is no arguing that the OL will be asked to pass protect at a consistently high level in 2014 and beyond.
Sam Baker is a pass pro specialist, and when he's healthy he is a very solid outside blocker (+12.5 overall in 2012). Blalock is also much stronger in the passing game (+7.0) than in the running game (-4.9). Asamoah was brought in because of his pass pro acumen (+4.6). Jake Matthews is a rookie, and may have his growing pains, but he should be a solid pass protector at RT (I project a 0.0 overall).
Instead of having revolving doors at both OT spots, RG, and C, we will have at worst solid players. I expect our OL to struggle a bit in preseason as they "gel" and get used to each other, and I think they will have a few sloppy games to start the season. There is a good chance they get mauled against Cincy in Week 2, and TB will likely give us fits in Game 3. However, I think by Game 7 they will be ready for prime-time.
2. A (Somewhat) Improved Running Game
Let's not mince words here: our running game in 2013 was embarrassingly bad. It was so bad the Falcons elected to run on only 30% of offensive plays. That's scary bad. You can't win in the NFL if you pass the ball 70% of time, no matter who is on your team. Why was it so bad? Was it SJax slowing down? Lack of talent in the backfield? Piss poor run blocking? It could be all three, but I would wager the biggest factor was the piss poor run blocking.
And it really, really was terrible. In fact, the only players on the team with positive run block grades were: WR Drew Davis (+1.7), FB Patrick DiMarco (+2.4), OG Harland Gunn (+1.1), C Joe Hawley (+2.4), and WR Roddy White (+2.5). Let that sink in for a moment. If the only people that are having success run blocking are WRs, the FB (a bright spot!), and backup OL, you know you have a run blocking problem.
This year, we didn't add any mauling run blockers. Obviously the passing game was the #1 focus, as it should have been. However, don't underestimate the potential run blocking skills of this new OL, particularly on the right side. Let's look into this a little closer. Here is what the right side of our line will probably look like on first down:
C Joe Hawley - RG Jon Asamoah - RT Jake Matthews - TE Bear Pascoe - WR Roddy White
Hawley is one of the better run blockers on the team, posting the second highest run block grade (+2.4). Asamoah, while not known for his run blocking, posted a positive grade run blocking last year (+0.5). We should expect Matthews to struggle at first, but he was known at TA&M for being both a solid run blocker and a stellar pass protector. For this I'll grade him at a conservative 0.0. Bear Pascoe is a pure blocking TE, and graded out positive in run blocking (+1.8). Although Roddy isn't on the OL, he is a strong run blocker on the outside (+2.5). If we compare these guys to the BEST ones we had out there last season, it looks like this: +7.2 to -1.7. If you include Konz, Holmes, or Tony Gonzalez, it drops down to a putrid -17. Add more than one of them at a time and it dips into the -30s. Think about how much those guys played last year.
Our running game likely won't be a world-beater this year, but there is no reason to believe that it won't show improvement. In fact, there is hope! If all goes to plan this year, I expect our running game to be in the 15-20 range. It will be a complementary piece to our passing game and we should still expect a roughly 60/40 split of pass/run plays, but SJax and Co. should be able to get something going behind a much improved right side of the line. The left side though? Well...let's not talk about them...
What's the ceiling and floor for the Falcons' OL in 2014?
I can see this season shaking out a number of different ways. Above all, the most important piece for a successful season, in my mind, is keeping our top guys healthy. Unfortunately, this seems to be the piece that nobody can really predict or control. The only thing you can do is prepare for it by keeping solid depth, which is what the Falcons have accomplished this offseason.
A league average OL provides the Falcons with a deadly passing game and a complementary running game. If the line can pass protect at a high level, there is no reason our passing game can't be as good as 2012 or better. If the line can run block just a little bit (fingers crossed), we can use the run to set up the pass and as an additional weapon against teams with poor run D. Wouldn't it be nice to feel confident when you see the Falcons try to run the ball on 3rd and 1? I think so.
That being said, here are my entirely too early predictions for the OL in 2014.
The Falcons OL comes out playing solid ball, but struggles initially against some tough defenses (Cincy, TB). By mid-season, the OL is in good form, particularly in pass protection. Baker (amazingly) stays healthy, and our depth steps up when needed. Matthews has a solid season, which is particularly impressive for a rookie. Overall, the OL performs at an above-average level, providing a massive upgrade over last year's unit.
Projected NFL Rank - OL Pass Protection: 9th
Projected NFL Rank - OL Run Blocking: 17th
Projected NFL Rank - Passing Offense: 3rd
Projected NFL Rank - Rushing Offense: 16th
The Falcons OL struggles somewhat in the beginning, taking a beating against Cincy, TB, Detroit, and some other tough defenses. Baker can't stay on the field, forcing Matthews to move to LT. He struggles, but puts up a respectable performance overall. One of Lamar Holmes/Mike Johnson/Gabe Carimi takes over RT, providing a decent stopgap option. After the bye week, the OL comes out playing solid ball, giving hope for a stronger unit in 2015.
Projected NFL Rank - OL Pass Protection: 19th
Projected NFL Rank - OL Run Blocking: 25th
Projected NFL Rank - Passing Offense: 6th
Projected NFL Rank - Rushing Offense: 20th
Whew! That was a lot. I hope that you guys have enjoyed this post and are as excited as I am about the upcoming season. I am very open to comments/criticisms/questions, seeing as this is my first "sports" article ever written. Also, this post is called "Let's", so please comment and discuss your views on the state of our OL in 2014!
Next time join me as I discuss, in dubious depth, the Falcons' DL acquisitions and my expectations for their performance in 2014! Stay tuned for more Let's Talk Falcons!
I also want to give a special shout-out to Dave Choate, Jeanna Thomas, Alec Shirkey, James Rael, FalconsM5, and any other Falcoholic writers that I have forgotten. Without you guys and your efforts, the site we know and love wouldn't exist. Thanks so much for your contributions!
Thanks very much for reading, and go Falcons! RISE UP!
freakywarguy is a rabid Falcons fan from northwest Florida. He recently graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in Psychology, but has instead decided to try and pursue his dream of writing about whatever takes his fancy. He is an active video game enthusiast, internet tough guy, and fiction writer. In his spare time he also draws maps and helps manage an online gaming community.