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How does Hugh Thornton’s retirement affect the Falcons’ guard competition?

Thornton’s surprise retirement has left the Falcons without a veteran option in the battle for the starting RG position. How does the competition shake out in his absence?

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We received a bit of unnerving and surprising news on Tuesday afternoon when it was announced that Falcons’ G Hugh Thornton would be retiring from the NFL. Thornton was signed by Atlanta as a free agent only a few months ago, and it was believed that he would be a prominent player in the battle for the now-vacant RG position. At the very least, Thornton was expected to be a valuable veteran reserve along the interior.

Vaughn McClure has given us a bit more information about his retirement, which seems to have stemmed from lingering effects from his most recent ankle surgery:

With Thornton deciding to hang up his cleats, the Falcons are suddenly in a position where they no longer have any proven veteran options at G outside of LG starter Andy Levitre. That’s not to say they have no intriguing players at the position—more on that shortly—but having a player with starting experience to compete with and mentor the young guys is never a bad thing.

Now that Thornton is officially out of the picture, how does his absence affect the Falcons’ RG competition this offseason?

The top contenders for the position have to be Wes Schweitzer, last year’s sixth-round pick, the OL/DL hybrid Ben Garland, and rookie Sean Harlow. There are also a few intriguing UDFAs in the mix such as Auburn’s Robert Leff, USC’s Kevin Graf, and Notre Dame’s Trevor Robinson. There’s also the distinct possibility that the Falcons elect to add another veteran option to the mix, someone like Tre’ Jackson (who I liked coming out of the draft, particularly in the zone blocking scheme) or Austin Pasztor.

I believe it was always likely that Quinn envisioned Wes Schweitzer winning the job this offseason, regardless of the presence of Thornton. Schweitzer was a very good run blocker when he was drafted, but needed to improve his pass protection. If he’s done so over the past season, he’s absolutely the favorite to come away as the starter following training camp.

Garland and Harlow will definitely be in the mix as well, but I don’t expect either to beat out Schweitzer for the starting role. Garland is likely to remain the primary interior back-up (and occasional NT) because of his G/C versatility. Harlow will likely find himself in the same position Schweitzer was in last season: game-day inactive for most of the year, with the potential to seize a starting role in the future.

Thornton’s departure probably has the greatest impact on the UDFAs that are competing to make the roster. With him out of the picture, it’s much more likely that one of Leff, Graf, or Robinson manage to sneak on as the final interior offensive lineman. My money is on Robert Leff, who was a mauling run-blocker at Auburn that has the makings of a solid G at the NFL-level. He also offers the ability to play tackle in a pinch.

What do you think about Hugh Thornton’s surprising retirement? Do you believe his absence seriously impacts the RG competition? Are you in favor of adding a veteran option to replace him, or simply letting the UDFAs and rookies battle it out?