As you know, the Falcons have extended second-round tenders to restricted free agents Ricardo Allen and Ben Garland. The first is a move we were all expecting; the second, well, just not at that price.
A second-round tender will cost the Falcons $2.9 million on the cap. That’s good value for a starting free safety (though, one to surely sign an extension at some point before September), but quite an investment in a reserve guard and center.
Unless you switch out “reserve” for “starting.”
The Falcons paying Garland nearly $3 million in a year where they don’t have a ton of cap space might be our first clue as to what the team’s plans for him are in 2018.
We might be looking at the new starting right guard.
Let’s consider a few reasons for why this could be the case.
ATL’s Financial History at Right Guard
If you know anything about Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff, it’s that man does *not* like to pay right guards.
Ever since arriving in his role Dimitroff has seeming made a conscientious effort not to pay his right guards more than $3 million a season. Just look at the scale of cap hits at the position since 2008 (thanks to random places on the internet and Falcfans’ Aaron Freeman for helping me gather the data).
2008 - Harvey Dahl - $450,400
2009 - Harvey Dahl - $1,552,280
2010 - Harvey Dahl - $2,521,000
2011 - Garrett Reynolds - $525,150
2012 - Garrett Reynolds - $610,150
2013 - Garrett Reynolds - $1,065,000
2014 - Jon Asamoah - $2,800,000
2015 - Chris Chester - $2,800,000 (they had $4,268,750 in dead cap from Asamoah, too)
2016 - Chris Chester - $2,600,000 ($3,900,000 dead cap from Asamoah)
2017 - Wes Schweitzer - $573,095
So, historically, the Falcons don’t pony up a whole lot of anything for their right guards. The philosophy briefly shifted with Asamoah’s deal, but as we know, that didn’t pan out. Even if Asamoah had stayed, it’s fair to wonder if releasing Justin Blalock in 2015 was always part of a plan to only pay one guard spot top dollar. Ever since he got here, Dimitroff has refused to pay top dollar for each and every spot on the offensive line, prioritizing the tackle and center spots, and really only investing soundly in the left guard spot. Right guard is typically an afterthought, and an inexpensive one at that.
Garland’s salary hit of $2.9 million would hit the threshold for the historical pay for a right guard in the Dimitroff era. It’s fair to note he’s also the back-up center, thus maximizing his value, but it’d be very un-Falcon like to pay a reserve OL that much money. Backup left tackle Will Svitek made $2.38 million in 2012 to back up injury-prone LT Sam Baker, but neither Alex Mack nor Wes Schweitzer have shown any sort of streaks in their injury history. The team payed $1.5 million to Gino Gradkowski in 2015 to back up Mike Person, but that move almost feels preventative since Person was an unknown commodity (and also cost just over $500,000 on the cap).
The tender is an interesting move, as well, being that the team tendered Dahl in 2010 for a first rounder, which cost a little less at the time than what Garland is set to make in 2018 on his tender. Dots, man. They’re connecting.
Though, Dimitroff said that his philosophy in interior offensive line investment has shifted recently, stating that “you can spend money on the offensive line, besides the tackles, and get a great return on your investment.”
So, you could take that statement and break this down to Garland getting paid the salary to two high-quality reserves (or just one super-expensive one), but that just isn’t historically what Dimitroff does with the cap and his offensive lineman (particularly guards). If he’s going to pay you nearly $3 million to be an offensive lineman, he traditionally expects you to be out on the field. The Falcons were already not flushed with cap space this season, and putting more on Garland than was likely necessary could mean they’ve got him eyed for more. The move falls right in line with where the team historically pays its right guard starters.
At $2.9 million, Garland now carries the highest cap hit of any potential right guard in the Thomas Dimitroff era, minus the dead money on Asamoah’s deal.
Since the money is what it is, does that mean Garland’s about to get a bigger role in the offense?
The Wes Schweitzer Conundrum
Alright, so let’s talk about Wes Schweitzer for a minute.
In 2017, Schweitzer had a roller coaster season. He had a horrendous debut up in Chicago, where Akiem Hicks ate him like a slice of deep dish pizza, but he rebounded with a fine performance against a lacking Green Bay front four (one missing Mike Daniels). That seemed to be the case in 2017 for the right guard — he’s be fine, as long as he wasn’t going up against top-flight talent. But, when the big boys came calling, he’d struggle in pass protection (see the Rams and Eagles playoff games for examples).
The sixth-round pick out of San Jose State just saw his position coach in college, Keith Carter, leave for Tennessee to man its offensive line after coaching the running backs for a year, which makes you wonder if Schweitzer just lost a big advocate inside the coaching room. Of like mind, Garland filled in for Andy Levitre when the latter went down with injury in December, and filled in admirably, if not quite as effective. Well, actually, Garland took his lumps in pass protection, but had strong moments as a run blocker. One could argue the same about Schweitzer, but Monday’s tender news makes you ponder if Atlanta liked what they saw of Garland in limited reps.
Schweitzer still has a lot of room to grow, but will the Falcons give him time to come into his own? After getting manhandled up front in the Eagles playoff game, it’s not out of the question to think the team wants to remedy that, starting at right guard. With Levitre for-sure back in 2018, that’s the spot to be upgraded.
But, with other spots on the roster to tend to (particularly on the defensive line, where the team is taking a hit by losing Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe), it’s fair to wonder if the team eyes Garland as a potential, less-expensive replacement to Schweitzer. Now, the latter beat out the former for the job in camp, but with Carter gone, it begs the question of if the team has internally decided the crowned the wrong victor.
Making Garland the starting right guard out the gate would allow the team to invest on defense once more in the first round of the 2018 draft, and perhaps get a second or third round guy to groom for 2019, when Levitre and Garland would both be subject to free agency.
Garland could still be Mack’s main backup in this scenario, with Schweitzer coming off the bench to slot in at right guard. He’s got starting reps, and would be a valued reserve. So, even if Garland did start, the team wouldn’t lose its depth with Schweitzer on the roster.
Stars Aligning for Garland
The decision to tender Garland as a second-round talent feels like a seismic shift in the guard discussion for Atlanta, one that will have obvious ramifications for an offense in 2018 that’s trying to get back to elite status.
Garland did have his struggles in the playoff games, but if he’s playing between Mack and Ryan Schraeder, would some of those problems boil up quicker than they did/will for Schweitzer? Garland, right now, is probably the better overall player, and for the Falcons to pay him this much in 2018 may hint that they aren’t just looking to hold on to him for his backup versatility. This could mean the team is ready to see what he’d look like as the starting right guard.
And, it’s also entirely possible the team just wanted to keep Garland around, and were willing to pay the price to do so. But, that’d a bit of an odd move with the cap space so tight, and other players of Garland’s supposed caliber available for not as much money. The team just doesn’t have the money sitting around to pay that much for a backup. If they just have, it’s not a wise decision, considering the cheaper tenders available.
Is this just another Dimitroff cap snafu? For a guy not known to invest in his right guard spot, it doesn’t feel as likely.
Follow the money, and follow the competition.
Ben Garland might’ve just been named a starter.