Most of Atlanta's key free agents are coming off one-year "prove it" deals. O'Brien Schofield and Kroy Biermann were recent players on my free agent feature list. Next up is Chris Chester. Many expected the Falcons to draft a long-term replacement for Justin Blalock, who wasn't an ideal fit for Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking scheme.
With so many pressing needs, the front office couldn't address that glaring hole at right guard. Chester was signed in May as a short-term solution. Instead of playing left guard, he ended up replacing Jon Asamoah on the right side in a bizarre situation. Chester played fairly well during this season, though a shoulder injury affected him near the end. He still managed to play 16 games and proved his value as a starting-caliber right guard. Should that justify another year or two as a Falcon?
Reasons to re-sign Chester
When any team has several pressing needs, maintaining stability on both lines is crucial. Many viewed him as a declining lineman that gets overwhelmed in pass protection and doesn't add enough as a run blocker, but Chester played a pivotal role in Devonta Freeman's success. The zone-blocking scheme allows athletic linemen to utilize their assets and make quality blocks at the second level.
In an interview with Andrew Hirsh, Shanahan credited Chester on his athleticism and ability to make difficult blocks. His ability to excel at the second level was evident during the Falcons' early success. Whether it was preventing Anthony Hitchens from making a stop or pulling to the left side to block Eddie Pleasant, Chester moves extremely well for a 33-year old guard.
Experience is something that can't be discounted. Prior to this season, Shanahan mentioned that Chester has played five years within a zone-blocking scheme. Being accustomed to a certain system will pay dividends. Watch Chester help Mike Person double-team Terrance Knighton, before closing down on Perry Riley. That is an experienced lineman handling multiple responsibilities like a true anchor. Although he can get overpowered during one-on-one situations, there were some shining moments. After not allowing Ropati Pitoitua to get any penetration, Chester pulls him to the side as Freeman cuts back into a wide-open hole.
As mentioned above, Chester's durability deserves recognition. Vaughn McClure stated that the right guard was basically playing with one arm during the final month of the season. Injuries were a reoccurring theme for Atlanta's offensive line. In 2014, five offensive linemen ended the season on injured reserve. Besides Mike Person missing one game, the cohesive unit managed to play every snap together, which matters even if it wasn't an excellent line.
Reasons to let him go
At 33 years old and coming off shoulder surgery, there are certainly enough red flags about Chester's outlook. Atlanta is nowhere near Super Bowl contention. A complete overhaul of the interior line wouldn't be a radical decision. Mike Person proved to be incapable of handling basic tasks, while Andy Levitre was the most penalized player on the team and struggled in pass protection. Drafting a guard in the second round or investing in Kelechi Osemele are both logical moves. My fellow colleague Charles MacDonald briefly wrote about Osemele's capabilities last week.
Chester's tendency of being overpowered against bigger lineman on running plays translated into problems in passing situations. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed six sacks last season. From Cullen Jenkins blowing past him to Henry Melton tossing him aside, the former Redskin was responsible for Matt Ryan taking several hits.
He wasn't a weekly liability on the level of Garrett Reynolds or Peter Konz. There were simply far too many plays that Chester was either overwhelmed or didn't react fast enough. His hand placement became problematic as well. While Cameron Jordan is a premier defensive lineman, an accomplished ten-year veteran shouldn't get thrashed like a rookie.
With Atlanta possibly entering the Travis Benjamin sweepstakes, Ryan will look to throw more downfield. The interior line will need to do a much better job of providing ample protection. They allowed far too many sacks on basic stunts and A-gap blitzes. Chester will shoulder some criticism, although playing alongside an NFL-caliber center would have been useful. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder are one of the better tackle duos in the league. The interior line caused most of the 32 sacks allowed. That can't occur again, if Ryan is going to be less conservative and make wiser decisions.
This would have been a much easier decision if the front office decided to release Levitre. Quinn was adamant about addressing both lines during the final regular season press conference. Multiple linebacker spots, center, strong safety, and a number two wide receiver are clear needs. Can the organization manage another hole by not re-signing Chester?
New England was forced into using rookies Tre Jackson and Shaquille Mason during the season. They had their rough moments, along with backup tackle Marcus Cannon. Bill Belichick likely regrets not having one veteran backup lineman at his disposal. With the lack of quality free agent guards, the Falcons could be playing with fire by not re-signing Chester. They can't afford to start two rookies nor have limited depth. A one-year two million dollar deal for Chester is more than reasonable. He would be a valuable mentor for their rookie guard. You would suspect Atlanta to draft one, given Chester and Levitre were brought in as stopgap solutions. With Shanahan's input and Quinn needing to address other significant needs, Chester will be re-signed to another one-year deal. He remains as a serviceable guard that can be a difference maker in the run-blocking department