Despite enduring some difficult stretches, the Falcons’ offensive line played like a top ten unit. The front office drafted well and spent wisely to put together an above average group. For the first time in several seasons, Matt Ryan wasn’t being harassed on a consistent basis. The 2016 Most Valuable Player was sacked 37 times, which is a bit concerning. It should be taken into account that they faced six playoff teams from 2015.
The offensive line was much better at opening up running lines compared to protecting their franchise quarterback. While picking up blitzes proved to be an issue in losses to Seattle and San Diego, the interior line was the main reason behind their deficiencies. Andy Levitre and Chris Chester were overpowered against several defensive tackles. Interior pressure rattles Ryan more than anything else. If he can’t step into the pocket, inaccurate passes and dangerous decisions are bound to occur.
Chester recently announced his retirement. Shoulder injuries eventually caught up to the durable right guard. According to Pro Football Focus, Chester allowed seven sacks in 2016. He simply couldn’t hold up against power rushers on solo assignments. Considering how the offensive line was in shambles following the 2014 season, Chester deserves credit for maintaining his place at a problematic position. With the exception of Jon Asamoah, the Falcons have suffered from poor right guard play since Harvey Dahl’s departure in 2011.
There are plenty of potential candidates that can replace Chester. Wes Schweitzer and Hugh Thornton are the current top options. Counting out Ben Garland would be a mistake based on his ability to defy the odds and play multiple positions. A guard will likely be drafted in the first two rounds. That doesn’t necessarily make the new addition a long-term fit at right guard.
Levitre was one of Atlanta’s unsung heroes last season. Following a somewhat underwhelming season in 2015, the veteran guard was outstanding as a run blocker. Utilizing him on pull blocks ended up being one of Kyle Shanahan’s finest decisions. As solid as Levitre is, he turns 31 years old in May and will be owed seven million in 2018. Paying an older player, who is slightly above average, premium money doesn’t seem likely.
How the Falcons adjust from having two veterans to two younger guards will be crucial for the offensive line. As previously mentioned, it took them several years to properly replace Dahl. Trying to develop James Stone into a starting-caliber guard proved to be a disaster. The front office invested significant money and high draft picks into building this group. It’s time for them to develop younger players that weren’t regarded as top-ten caliber talent.
Right guard is the second biggest priority behind defensive end (edge rusher). Chester’s shortcomings in pass protection didn’t prevent the offense from blowing up the scoreboard. An inconsistent pass rush cost the Falcons in multiple games. Unless Forrest Lamp is available, it’s difficult envisioning another guard worth taking in the first round. This is still a massive need for the Falcons going forward. The possibility of inserting an above average player between Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder is an exciting proposition. Whether the plan comes to fruition or the high draft pick ends up replacing Levitre, it will be fascinating to see how an offensive lineman that wasn’t a top ten pick or went undrafted develops under a new coaching staff.