Now that the dust has settled from free agency and the draft, the Falcons’ plans for the right guard position seem clear. It’s 2016 sixth round pick Wes Schweitzer’s job to lose, effectively, with a raft of young guys (including rookie fourth rounder Sean Harlow) in the mix if he does falter. We’re already hearing good things about Harlow, and Garland probably shouldn’t be counted out of any competition.
Either way, they’ve put a lot of faith in multiple players who really didn’t get on the field a year ago, and while that should probably terrify me, it actually fills me with faith.
That’s not an unprecedented move, but it’s one that signals a welcome era for these Falcons, who seem determined to squeeze as much value out of every draft selection as they can. Aside from 2015 seventh rounder Jake Rodgers, who didn’t even make the team out of camp, the Falcons have gotten genuine value out of all their selections with Dan Quinn on board, which is pretty impressive. The Falcons got Schweitzer, a player who was on nobody’s radar, late with the intention to groom him.
For many years, the Falcons simply drafted special teamers or reserves with their late round picks. For every Kemal Ishmael who rose above their draft stock, there were two Charles Mitchells (6th round 2012), Shann Schillingers (6th round 2010), or Spencer Adkins...s (6th round 2009) who were selected late and either quickly cut or kept around to be one of the last men on the roster. Whether by design or poor scouting, Atlanta just burned a lot of late round picks, even while they were pretty consistently snagging solid players at the tops of their classes.
That’s not to imply that the Falcons hated their young players—UDFA Ryan Schraeder got his shot under Mike Smith, and guys like Ishmael and Kroy Biermann enjoyed fine years under the team’s last coach—but that it was incredibly rare that someone taken late or not at all in the draft to have a real impact. This current brain trust appears to expect it, to the point where I felt good about projecting Schweitzer as a future starter a year ago. They were able to get two very solid, productive seasons out of Chris Chester, but hopefully Schweitzer can be a long-term solution for them at right guard.
This is important not just because I root for homegrown players, but because Atlanta will need to unearth more and more young starters as they continue to re-sign their stars to large contracts. Having someone like Schweitzer starting for cheap over the next three seasons will make a massive difference for Atlanta, and if he somehow turns out to be great, so much the better.
We’re way too early in the year to say that Schweitzer will win the job, but there are many signs pointing toward him being the favorite there. The more young starters and contributors the Falcons can snag out of their draft classes, the better off they’ll be. Schweitzer is, hopefully, just the start.