After starting off the year with so much hope, the Falcons find themselves at 2-7 heading into Week 11 of the 2019 season. Nothing has gone as expected. The defense was among the worst in the league prior to Week 10’s victory over New Orleans, and the offense has struggled due to a number of offensive line injuries and the adjustment to Dirk Koetter’s (questionable) scheme.
Just because the Falcons managed to snap their 6-game losing streak doesn’t mean the Draft Takes are gone. Today, we’ll take a look at one of the bigger potential needs on the roster in 2020 that may have been overlooked by some of us: the center position.
Alex Mack joined the Falcons in 2016, and brought stability and veteran leadership to an offensive line that had lacked it since Todd McClure retired after the 2012 season. Mack will likely go down as Thomas Dimitroff’s best free agent signing, and he played an integral role in Atlanta’s historic offense and Super Bowl run. Despite Mack’s age—he’s 34 now and will be 35 in 2020—he’s continued to play at a high level, and has fought through a number of injuries.
Mack is under contract next season but will be a free agent in 2021. He’ll have a $10.5M cap hit, which is fair for a top-tier center. Assuming Mack finishes the season healthy and continues his level of play, there’s no reason to try move on from him next season. But things get a little more interesting in 2021, where Mack will be 36 and potentially looking for a new short-term deal—or considering retirement.
The Falcons can probably expect one more good season out of Mack, but all bets are off for 2021. That gives the team two drafts (and free agency periods) to find Mack’s eventual successor. The question is: should the Falcons address the need in the 2020 NFL Draft, and give Mack’s successor a season to learn and develop behind the All Pro? Or should the team address more potentially pressing needs this season, and wait until 2021 to add a new center?
Based on the Falcons likely draft position (somewhere between picks 4-8) and the additional second round pick added in the Mohamed Sanu trade, the team has a golden opportunity to add an interior offensive lineman on Day 2. Whether or not that occurs will probably come down to who is available when Atlanta is on the clock, but there are a number of quality options that should be available in the early second-third round range.
The top two center prospects in this year’s class are probably going to be out of reach for the Falcons, unless they trade down and pick up additional first round picks. Those two names are Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz and Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey. Both are excellent, scheme-diverse prospects who would be instant starters—and could probably play guard in their rookie season. I know some fans are terrified of Wisconsin centers, but there’s a saying in scouting that I encourage everyone to take to heart: “scout the player, not the helmet.”
The next tier of players are mid-second rounders in my eye—players Atlanta could target with their first second-rounder, but would be better values with the pick they got from the Patriots. Those guys are Mississippi State’s Darryl Williams—who lacks ideal size and athleticism, but has competitiveness, physicality, and technique in spades—and LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry III, who is basically the opposite. He’s a superb athlete with excellent size and more flexibility to play C or G, but still needs technical refinement.
In the third round—or perhaps even early fourth round, depending on how the draft plays out—there are two other centers who the Falcons could pursue: Washington’s Nick Harris and Oregon’s Jake Hanson. I haven’t had much of a chance to watch either of these players yet, but both have long-term developmental potential and look like serviceable starters at worst. Harris has significant size concerns and is probably locked in to a center-only role: he’s listed at 6’1, 287 according to The Draft Network. Hanson, meanwhile, has great size at 6’5, 307, but doesn’t seem to be having the final season that many expected.
There’s a lot of potential for the Falcons to add their center of the future in the 2020 draft class. Personally, I’m leaning towards going after Cushenberry, who has all the physical traits and just needs some development time. If Atlanta can add him in the late second round and have him learn behind Mack for a year—and potentially play at guard if he beats out someone in camp—Cushenberry should hopefully be ready to take over the starting job in 2021.
I don’t believe it would be wise to wait on center until 2021. We shouldn’t discount the value of having a veteran All Pro center like Alex Mack being able to personally tutor a young successor, and giving rookie offensive linemen a season to acclimate before being thrust into the starting lineup is generally best if you’re looking for positive results. Waiting until 2021 is just punting on a need until the last possible second, and that has rarely worked out well in Atlanta.
What are your thoughts on the Falcons adding Alex Mack’s successor in the 2020 NFL Draft? Do you have a preference between any of the available prospects? At what point in the draft would you target the position?