The Falcons’ offensive line was one of the great strengths of the team throughout much of their magical 2016 run, but the number of times it has been a genuine asset instead of a liability over the last decade-plus is quite low.
Atlanta heads into 2019 with Jake Matthews as a slam dunk top option at left tackle and Alex Mack as a still rock solid pivot, albeit one who is aging. Beyond that, they don’t have a single 2018 starter that is guaranteed to return, leaving the line as one of the great needs for this football team heading into next year.
Earlier today we looked at how the line fared last year, and right now I want to look at the best way for the line to shake out and how I think it actually will when the dust settles on this Falcons offseason. Let’s get started by looking at potential additions.
How high will the Falcons aim? If they intend to be first-day players in free agency, their signings would seem likely to come at either defensive tackle or along the offensive line. If they wanted to make a huge splash and upgrade the line significantly, there are a handful of quality options available to them.
The first is Rodger Saffold, who has been a tremendous player for the Rams for a while now. Over the last two seasons, the former left tackle has locked down the left guard spot for a resurgent Los Angeles offense, and while the team is going to make every effort to keep him, the Falcons would solve their left guard need pretty much instantly by adding him. Saffold’s 31 years old but should have a few good years left in him, he’s been quite durable, and he’s a powerful, mobile blocker. Outside of locking down a top pass rusher, I can’t think of a signing I’d endorse more than Saffold.
Daryl Williams would also be a nice fit. The Panthers’ right tackle was an elite player for one year only, in 2017, and he lost most of 2018 to injury. If that improvement was real in 2017, though, he’ll be a semi-affordable and potentially tremendous addition at tackle, a position the Falcons may be looking to upgrade. There’s more risk here than signing Saffold, to be sure, but Williams seems like a safe bet to be an upgrade over 2018 Ryan Schraeder.
Beyond those two, there are multiple quality options ranging from J.R. Sweezy, injury-hobbled but quality former Falcon Andy Levitre, the solid Mike Iupati and Ramon Foster at guard, plus Trent Brown, Bobby Massie, and Ja’Wuan James at tackle. If the Falcons are serious about turning over three positions on their offensive line this offseason, they’ll want to try to accomplish two of those in free agency with one high-end signing and one quality veteran addition. If they’re only focusing on turning over one guard spot and right tackle, which I think they could more than get away with, perhaps they’ll invest the dollars in both. That would leave some combination of Brandon Fusco, Wes Schweitzer, Sean Harlow, Matt Gono and perhaps Zane Beadles competing for one spot.
Of course, there’s also the draft. The Falcons would be foolish to try to solve more than one immediate need in this class, given the acclimation period for young offensive linemen in the here and now, but I’d fully expect them to try to solve one if they don’t pour all their dollars into free agency.
Who is out there? Jonah Williams from Alabama is the consensus top tackle prospect available but figures to go top ten, putting him out of Atlanta’s reach. That would leave the somewhat raw but promising Greg Little from Ole Miss, David Edwards Jr. from Wisconsin, or hyper-productive Dalton Risner from Kansas State as the top tackle prospects available, and all three could go by the second round. The Falcons might have a later prospect in mind, but if you’re looking for a day one starter who is also a scheme fit, that might be your list this year, meaning the Falcons can’t afford to wait around if they’re looking to replace Ryan Schraeder with a rookie right now.
The guard class might surprise, but in the here and now it looks pretty anemic. The best option available is probably Beau Benzschawel out of Wisconsin, with Chris Lindstrom from Boston College and Michael Deiter (also of Wisconsin) following him up. Those are projected to be second-to-third round selections, and the Falcons haven’t selected a guard higher than the fourth round since Dan Quinn got here. Any one of those three could be on the board for the Falcons in the second round, however, if they wish to go in that direction.
Again, it’s a question of whether you get day one, impact starters with any of your offensive line selections. We’ll spend more time diving into this class in the weeks ahead, but the Falcons are going to have to break character and invest early round selections on the offensive line if they’re serious about turning over the line the way they indicated they are, and I’m still not entirely convinced they’ll do so.
The preferred outcome
The Falcons manage to make a big splash and lure Rodger Saffold away from the Rams, locking down the left guard position. Ty Sambrailo and a mid-tier starter like Ja’Waun James come on board to compete for the right tackle job while the Falcons add a developmental prospect for the years ahead, and the team grabs one of the top guard options in the draft in the second round to compete with Wes Schweitzer and company for the right guard job. The net result is an improved left guard position, potential immediate and long-term upgrades at right guard, and a caretaker situation at right tackle that offers likely better outcomes at right tackle than the Falcons enjoyed in 2018.
In this scenario, your starting offensive line is Jake Matthews, Rodger Saffold, Alex Mack, a rookie/Wes Schweitzer, and Ja’Waun James, with Ty Sambrailo, a rookie/Schweitzer, Matt Gono and Zane Beadles/a rookie as your reserves. Yes, I’m keeping Beadles instead of Fusco.
The most likely outcome
Despite Dan Quinn’s suggestion that the team will evaluate all three unsettled spots along the offensive line, they elect not to do so. Ryan Schraeder winds up as a cut and the Falcons pursue Daryl Williams, Trent Brown or James hard with the re-addition of Ty Sambrailo, but the guard spots don’t get the same love. Andy Levitre returns on an affordable one-year deal to compete with Wes Schweitzer for left guard and the team breaks their long-standing habit of not investing at guard to use a second or third round pick at the position to snag a Benzschawel, Lindstrom or Deiter, who competes with and beats out Beadles and Gono for the right guard job.
In this scenario, your starting offensive line is Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, a rookie/Brandon Fusco, and Daryl Williams/Trent Brown/Ja’Waun James, with a rookie/Schweitzer, Matt Gono, Ty Sambrailo and as your reserve. Depending on your tackle versus guard proclivities, perhaps you end up preferring this one.