Chris Chester is considering retirement. Ben Garland is a part-time center and defensive tackle. Wes Schweitzer is a sixth round draft choice who isn’t certain to be ready. And so on.
The state of the guard position in Atlanta is profoundly unsettled over the next couple of seasons, in other words. Andy Levitre will likely start this year but could be cut for cap savings in 2018, which means the onus is on the Falcons to try to get young, talented, cost-effective players at guard in the near term. Schweitzer could well be one of those players, but you’re still going to need another.
Enter the 2017 NFL Draft. This is a class with some well-regarded potential starters at the top, and a handful of intriguing options later. Let’s take a look at six players I believe could be in play for Atlanta, though this is by no means the exhaustive list.
Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky
A relatively small school prospect, Lamp served as the team’s left tackle, but profiles as a guard at the NFL level. He moves extremely well for a big lineman, blocks well, and is a bright guy, which means he checks most of the boxes you’d look for in your left guard. He’s also the only guard that seems like a mortal lock to go in the first round, and he could be gone before the Falcons ever get on the board.
Also, as I’ve noted repeatedly, he has a great name.
Dan Feeney, Indiana
Feeney is a guard with terrific awareness, mobility, and pass protection ability, which on paper makes him an excellent fit for Atlanta, which runs a zone blocking scheme.
The chief knocks on him come from strength and leverage, and whether he can consistently hold up against quality defensive tackles at the NFL level. He could tumble a bit for teams that look chiefly for power and size in their guards, potentially putting him in line for the Falcons in the second round, but it only takes one team.
Dorian Johnson, Pittsburgh
He’s a big, steady guard who offers good hand usage, advanced blocking ability both in pass protection and in the run game, and the kind of size and nastiness you want in a guard. There are weaknesses here, chiefly with consistency, but once he irons those out he has the potential to be an excellent starter at the next level.
I’ll put this prediction down and say that Johnson winds up going to Atlanta in the second round, and I’d be pretty thrilled if they landed him. Keep a close eye on him at the Combine.
Zach Banner, USC
This is about where the drop off sets in and we’re starting to talk about late second/early third day players. Banner is insanely big at 6’8”, 361 pounds (!), but many are penciling him in as a guard at the NFL level regardless. He’s insanely strong and difficult to move, but he’s not the same caliber of athlete as the three guys mentioned above, I’d be worried about his weight, and he had penalty issues at USC. I’d probably pass on Banner if he was the best guard left on the board.
Damien Mama, USC
Banner’s fellow lineman is smaller, but still a sizeable dude at 6’4”, 325 pounds. He’s got good lateral agility for his size, uses his hands pretty well, and has some untapped upside, but he can be taken off his spot too easily and will have trouble with better pass rushing defensive tackles at the next level unless he improves significantly. He could be an option in the fourth round for Atlanta, if they aren’t worried about those issues and the fact that he weighed 400 pounds not long ago.
Erik Magnuson, Michigan
Someone to watch late, Magnuson moves extremely well and has shown an ability to handle a pass rusher’s toolkit of moves at both tackle and guard. The problem is that he’s going to need to add bulk and power in the NFL and not lose his leverage, so no team is going to take him early and install him as a starter right away. If the Falcons are comfortable rolling on with Schweitzer or a freshly re-signed Chester this year, though, Magnuson would be an interesting addition as a reserve with a potential starter’s upside, and you might be able to snag him with your 7th rounder.
Anticipated Draft Round
The Falcons need a quality guard, so this could wind up being an early round selection. It’s difficult to know whether they’ll elect to go for a pass rusher, defensive tackle, or guard first, but we’ll get some clarity based on what the team does in free agency this month.
For now, let’s expect Atlanta to come up with a guard in the second round. If they pass on the top three guys, though, they’re not likely to snag a year one starter.
Full List of Combine Invites
You’ll find it here. Overall, this is a class where you’ll need to get in early to get an immediate upgrade, but there are plenty of intriguing options lurking later. We’ll see if Atlanta’s looking for the former or the latter in 2017.