Sussing out exactly what the Falcons are doing along the offensive line right now requires a little creative thinking and a lot of booze, to be frank. A line that looked shaky a week ago still looks shaky today, but the Falcons have added Bryce Harris, Andy Levitre and Gino Gradkowski and subtracted Jon Asamoah (who hit injured reserve) and Joe Hawley (who was released), two of the better players from last year's edition. It's hard to know how to feel about those moves.
Of course, there is a plan here.
Start with jaded eyes
If the Falcons' current staff felt that Jon Asamoah and Joe Hawley were terrific players, they would still be here, to be blunt. Asamoah was a prized free agent signing a year ago, but clearly was dealing with injury issues, the coaching staff's perception that he wasn't an ideal fit, and potentially other factors we're not familiar with, so an IR stash at least buys them a year to think about what to do with him. Hawley was recovering from a major injury and had been running with the backups, which I thought was due to wanting to save him for the regular season, but clearly had more to do with his actual standing on the roster.
In both cases, it was easy to think the player might be headed for a starting role because of his contract, previous experience, and/or reputation, but the Falcons just aren't going to roll that way any longer, for better or for worse. A completely healthy Asamoah might have made this discussion moot, but it's clear that didn't happen, either.
The bottom line is that the Falcons knew they had a weak offensive line, and they didn't get overly attached to the incumbents. They may have been a little biased against them, frankly, and the net result is that Hawley is gone and they're not waiting around for Asamoah to get healthy.
The state of the interior
The Falcons didn't make any major moves to solidify tackle, rolling with Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder as starters, electing to keep Lamar Holmes around (albeit on PUP), and adding Tyler Polumbus before claiming Bryce Harris off waivers. The staff rightly recognized that Matthews has the talent to start at left tackle for a long time, and that Schraeder is athletic and sturdy enough to at least serve as a stopgap. The depth is not particularly inspiring at the moment, to be sure, but the team appears to have acquired a pair of backups they're comfortable with, even if the fanbase isn't.
It's the interior where the staff focused most of their energies, churning a depth chart that featured James Stone, Joe Hawley, Jon Asamoah, Harland Gunn, and Peter Konz and leaving just Stone standing. Mike Person is a versatile, reasonably athletic scheme fit who has some yips snapping the football, Chris Chester is an inoffensive veteran guard who knows Shanahan and his offense, Andy Levitre was a damn good guard from 2011 to 2013 who imploded in 2014, and Gino Gradkowski is not dead. The team went through so many changes because they believed the interior of the line was the team's glaring weak spot.
Viewed through that prism, the moves the Falcons have make a lot more sense, even if you don't love the players they chose to fill the gaps. Kyle Shanahan wants players who move well along the line, and Justin Blalock's balky back, Jon Asamoah's hip issues, and Joe Hawley's potentially ongoing knee troubles made them problematic fits even before you dig in to their individual skill sets. The real question is one of timing, and whether the Falcons have been planning to snap up guys like Levitre and Gradkowski for a while now, or were forced to because these injury issues worsened late. You can decide how much benefit of the doubt to give the staff.
Of course, Gradkowski has a history of knee problems, too, so what the hell do I know?
The likely starting line
This may seem like a scramble before the Eagles come to town, but this is the part I think the Falcons had a good feel for before they pulled the trigger. You starting line likely looks like this:
LT: Jake Matthews
LG: Andy Levitre
C: James Stone
RG: Chris Chester
RT: Ryan Schraeder
There are injury caveats with Matthews, and center feels a bit unsettled with Person getting plenty of snaps there and Gradkowski coming to town, but I'm reasonably confident in the rest of it. The Falcons are banking on a bounceback from Levitre here to make this all work, and if they go with Stone they'll be hoping some of the issues he struggled with in preseason were due to lining up at guard.
The bottom line is that this isn't going to be a great line...but the team was pretty confident that wouldn't be the case with the old configuration, either. Person and Stone are young enough to offer some upside, Chester's a fine one year option, and Levitre was a pretty terrific guard as recently as 2013, so the gambles here aren't unreasonable. The problem is that they are all gambles, and the law of averages suggests not all of them are going to work out. The Falcons did a fine job of adding skill position talent for Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan to work with, but the line could blow up in their faces. The team is banking awfully heavily on Shanahan's scheme masking weaknesses.
How will the line fare?
I'm willing to bet that no matter how this team lines 'em up Week 1, you'll see changes to 2-3 spots along the front this season, likely all along the interior. The Falcons have essentially accepted that the upside here is 1-2 effective linemen and the potential for a couple of surprises, but the reality is that the plan is to make it through this year as best as possible and then take another hard look in 2016. If Matthews is healthy and effective, Schraeder holds down the right side, Levitre bounces back and either Stone or Person surprises, they'll be deciding between Asamoah and a draft pick at right guard.
In the much more likely scenario, this line is problematic, poor play gets Ryan hit a few times more than he should be, the ground game doesn't reach its full potential, and the Falcons are using their dollars and draft picks to try to solve those issues next year. You can't fix it all in one offseason, of course, but the fact that the plan here was always dependent on Shanny working magic and gambles working out is the one legitimate sour note heading into the 2015 season.
Let's hope for the miracle outcome.