The Falcons’ 2016 offense was a thing of beauty—a well-oiled machine of statistical dominance that scored at one of the greatest rates in NFL history. A big part of that success was the play of the offensive line. While they weren’t an elite unit by any measure, they were versatile, capable, and—most of all—durable.
Atlanta’s offensive line suffered a blow this offseason when veteran RG Chris Chester elected to retire. Chester wasn’t an amazing player, but he was consistently competent—which is more than you can say for the players that manned that spot before his arrival. The Falcons added a rookie in the draft to bolster the unit in Sean Harlow, but how does the guard position look as a whole after the conclusion of the 2017 NFL Draft?
LG - Andy Levitre
6’2, 303 - 16 games started in 2016 (LG)
The only returning starter at guard, Andy Levitre has manned the LG spot admirably since being brought in via trade just before the 2015 season. As a well-rounded player that has shown good ability in the zone-blocking scheme, Levitre is essentially entrenched at his position going into the 2017 season. He’s also been exceptionally durable, starting every game for the Falcons since joining the team.
Aside from a few poorly-timed false start penalties, there’s little to be concerned about with Levitre. He’s an above-average run blocker and pass protector that’s making a fair salary for his services. Where things get a little tricky is 2018—when Levitre’s salary balloons to over $8M. Atlanta is probably hoping that a viable replacement will be ready to step in by then.
RG - Wes Schweitzer
6’5, 315 - 0 games played in 2016
Schweitzer was a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 that spent the entire season on the active roster, yet never actually made it into a game. That shouldn’t be an indictment, however, as the team has clearly shown confidence in Schweitzer’s ability to start at RG in 2017. In fact, he’s such a heavy favorite to win the RG “battle” during training camp that I’m comfortable penciling him in at this point.
Schweitzer played LT in college and was known as a very good run blocker in his time at San Jose State. He’ll have two full offseasons to fix his pass protection technique and to adjust to the guard position before starting this season. I expect Schweitzer to be an average starter in 2017, with the potential for more down the road.
G/C Ben Garland
6’5, 308 - 16 games played in 2016 (C, G, DT)
Ben Garland—perhaps the most versatile player on the Falcons’ roster—was the primary interior offensive line back-up during the 2016 season. He also pitched in on defense (making a goal-line stop and getting a safety in the playoffs) and on special teams. Garland is a very valuable player that can do a lot of things for the team, and will certainly be involved in the RG competition this offseason.
He was a competent player whenever he filled in last season, which thankfully wasn’t very often. I believe he’s likely to remain the #2 center and primary interior back-up this season, and the Falcons’ will continue to take advantage of his exceptional positional flexibility in 2017 and beyond.
G Sean Harlow
6’4, 303 - Rookie (4th-round), 9 games started in 2016 (LT)
Sean Harlow, the Falcons’ fourth-round selection this season, was perhaps the most divisive of Atlanta’s draft picks. He manned LT for nine games at Oregon State, and has a reputation for being a nasty and physical run-blocker. Atlanta has already made it clear that they intend to move Harlow to guard, where he will compete for the RG position in training camp.
While a very good run blocker, Harlow has obvious deficiencies in pass protection that will need to be corrected before he can start for Atlanta. That in addition to the transition from college to the NFL and the position switch to guard all but assure that Harlow will primarily play a reserve role in his first NFL season. The Falcons probably hope to have him ready to take over for Levitre in 2018.
G Robert Leff
6’6, 299 - Rookie (UDFA), 13 games started in 2016 (RT)
I wrote about Leff at length in my “interesting UDFAs” piece. Here’s a snippet from my evaluation:
Leff was a late bloomer at Auburn that didn’t make a name for himself until his senior year, where he started all 13 games at right tackle. At 6’6, 299, he’s big enough to play on the outside, but his best fit in the NFL is likely at guard. PFF listed him as their #3 overall UDFA, and have lauded his run-blocking abilities as among the best in the class.
Leff is a very good run-blocker with some positional versatility at G/T. He may be the most polished UDFA that Atlanta brought in, and with the lack of proven depth on the roster, he could win himself a roster spot as the last offensive lineman.
G/C Trevor Robinson
6’5, 300 - 0 games played in 2016
Robinson didn’t receive glowing reviews from his previous team, the Chargers. He started unexpectedly in the 2014 season after Los Angeles (then San Diego, of course) went through an unbelievable five starting centers. Robinson was then started by choice in 2015, to very poor results—which eventually led to his removal from the roster prior to the 2016 season.
Atlanta picked him up as a training camp body, and I don’t expect him to be much more than that. He does offer flexibility as a guard and center, but unfortunately, he isn’t particularly impressive at either. The Falcons will hopefully be impressed enough by Harlow and the UDFAs to pass on Robinson after camp.
G/C Cornelius Edison
6’3, 309 - 6 games played in 2016 (C)
A recent signing by the Falcons, Edison was an UDFA that was signed by the Chicago Bears after the 2015 draft. He spent some time on Chicago’s practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in 2016, playing in six games at center. While I haven’t perused any of his tape myself, Chicago clearly valued him as a reserve player throughout the 2016 season.
He was waived after the 2017 draft and picked up by Atlanta as interior offensive line depth. Edison will compete for a reserve role in training camp but is a long-shot to make the roster. He could be a candidate to find his way onto the practice squad due to his NFL experience and positional versatility.
While the guard position is unsettled, there are some intriguing and young options that will be in the mix in 2017 and beyond. With one established and competent starter in Andy Levitre, the Falcons simply need to find one starting-caliber guy to play opposite him. That guy—who is likely to be Wes Schweizter—will also have the benefit of playing beside All-Pro C Alex Mack and excellent RT Ryan Schraeder.
There are also some pieces for the future in rookie G Sean Harlow, versatile G/C Ben Garland, UDFA G/T Robert Leff, and veteran option G/C Cornelius Edison. Depending on the development of these prospects, we could see the Falcons looking to address the position in the 2017 NFL Draft.
What do you think of the guard position? Are you confident in Schweitzer’s ability to start at RG? Do you think someone else will win the position? Who will be the primary reserve players?