Over the past two seasons, the offensive line has been an area of grave concern for the Falcons. Poor performance, exacerbated by a ridiculous number of injuries to key players, has certainly contributed to the Falcons' struggles in 2013 and 2014. Jake Matthews, who battled through injuries throughout the season, had an okay rookie year after being pressed into action at left tackle when Sam Baker suffered a torn patellar tendon during the preseason. Lamar Holmes also landed on IR with a foot injury, and Ryan Schraeder actually played well at right tackle last season.
But this season will be a completely different story, with players returning from injury and new coaches installing a new scheme. How can we expect the tackle position to shake out this season?
Most rookies have some growing pains, and Matthews' were almost certainly exacerbated by the preseason switch to left tackle as well as persistent injuries. Pro Football Focus gave Matthews a grade of -36.8 overall for the season, and according to their numbers, Matthews was responsible for allowing seven sacks, nine quarterback hits, and 35 hurries on Matt Ryan.
Matthews is coming off surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury and was not able to participate in drills during the first minicamp, but it will be interesting to see whether he lines up on the right or left side when he's able to get back on the field. At any rate, Matthews is a long-term answer at the tackle position, and we can pencil him in as a starter for next season.
Baker is a big question mark. He hasn't been able to consistently stay healthy and has essentially had one good season in his entire career. Baker is also still unable to participate in on-field activities as he continues to recover from the torn patellar tendon he suffered last preseason, but once he is able to return to the field we'll get a better sense of his fit in the zone blocking scheme. That said, based on the way Schraeder played last season, if the coaching staff is sincere about putting the best players on the field, I'm not certain Baker is destined for anything greater than a backup role this season.
In a weird season where Levine Toilolo was even briefly forced into action at tackle because of rampant injuries, Schraeder ended up being the most reliable tackle on the field all year. Pro Football Focus charges Schraeder with allowing three sacks, two hits and 13 hurries in 655 snaps. Schraeder isn't the most athletic guy on the field, but as long as he grasps the new scheme and can execute it effectively, I expect him to start opposite Matthews.
Another much-maligned tackle on the Falcons roster, Lamar Holmes has certainly earned fans' ire to an extent. Holmes was reportedly told he would need to slim down this offseason, and he's returned to Flowery Branch looking 30 or so pounds lighter. Holmes is a really good athlete and should be a good fit in the new scheme. While I don't think he'll be realistically competing for a starting role, I do think Holmes will stick around as a useful, experienced reserve.
Rodgers, a seventh-round draft choice out of Eastern Washington, is a versatile player who has played both tackle positions and can probably also play some guard. He's a developmental prospect and I doubt he has a serious shot at anything more than a practice squad role this season.
Polumbus spent the past four seasons in Washington, so he has experience with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He provides a veteran presence and certainly an understanding of the scheme. Polumbus is also versatile, having spent time at guard, and I think it's more likely he competes with Mike Person to fill the left guard role.
We'll keep an eye on Huffer, an undrafted free agent out of South Dakota, but he is probably a long shot to make the roster.
Dan Quinn has made it clear that they'll put the best players on the field, that the coaching staff will put those players in positions to succeed. Factoring in Jake Matthews' experience and health, I think we'll see him playing much more confidently and effectively this season. I think we can expect significant improvement at both tackle positions this season. I'd pencil in Jake Matthews at left tackle and Ryan Schraeder at right tackle, but we'll have to watch this unfold in training camp to be certain.
The offensive line will adapt nicely to the zone blocking scheme and the Falcons will actually have an effective ground game. Effective rushing will open up the passing game, and coupled with the line actually giving Ryan time to throw will pave the way for Ryan to put up the best numbers of his career.
Your thoughts on and expectations for the tackle position?