Every Falcons offseason is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. You get the edges of it in January and February, when the team is busily pruning the roster and making sweeping statements about where they intend to go, and then you fill in the picture in March, April, May, and June, with the final pieces snapping into place in August and very early September.
Our comfort level with the Falcons depends on what happens in March and April, when they land their free agent targets (or don’t) and add compelling young talent to the roster in the draft (or don’t). Before then, we don’t know if the picture being filled in is a contending Falcons team or a crummy one, which is anxiety-inducing. This offseason in particular, there are a lot of missing pieces as we hurtle toward the end of February, and few have provoked more concern than the state of the offensive line.
Ty Sambrailo’s signing has done little to ease that anxiety, though that’s not really Sambrailo’s fault. The Falcons surrendered a fifth round pick for Sambrailo in what was widely and accurately judged to be a head-scratcher at the time, and Sambrailo 2017 was at best decent. With two years in Atlanta under his belt, though, Sambrailo stepped in for a flailing Ryan Schraeder late in the 2018 season and actually played quite well. That was enough to earn him a new three year deal that straddles the line between low-end starter and high-end swing tackle money, this coming for a team that still hasn’t resolved Schraeder’s status and had pledged to take a hard look at turning over two or three positions along the offensive line.
In a vacuum, the Sambrailo signing is a solid one, and if he plays at the level he did in 2018, the deal is going to look like a steal. But this is not a vacuum and Sambrailo’s contract tells us just how much we don’t know about what the Falcons are up to along their offensive line, which is why I’m eager for free agency to start and the draft to arrive.
An offseason of turnover
Last offseason, the Falcons prized continuity, keeping their coaching staff essentially intact and choosing in-house solutions and rookies over soon-to-be expensive free agents like Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe. This offseason, Atlanta fired all three coordinators and have now jettisoned their longtime kicker, their longtime #2 cornerback, and a key piece of an already depleted defensive end rotation. With the exception of the loss of Matt Bryant, all of those moves were somewhere between expected and welcome, but taken cumulatively they suggest a team that is shifting the way it does business.
That kind of slashing is supposed to carry over to the offensive line, where only Jake Matthews and Alex Mack are viewed as truly safe. Yet the re-signing of Sambrailo suggests that the Falcons are not prioritizing a major upgrade at right tackle this offseason, where Ryan Schraeder is still on the block but Matthews and Sambrailo will likely head into the season as the top two options. That almost certainly means the Falcons will invest in their right tackle of the future in the draft, which is welcome, but it also means that this team is probably not going to actually turn over more than one starter along the offensive line heading into 2019, which is significantly less welcome.
An offseason of urgency
If the Falcons were content to say they were retooling, none of us would really be blinking at this. Sambrailo played well enough to stay around and the Falcons have multiple young options at guard they could give a legitimate shot to, were they a team searching for a better long-term way forward. Despite all the turnover, though, there’s plenty of reason to think this is a team that intends to be competitive this season.
That’s why the money given to Sambrailo, while entirely fair for his youth, performance, and potential, is a bit more troubling. We know the Falcons are going to pony up big-time to keep Grady Jarrett and Julio Jones, and the guard market has only one or two high-end options and a lot of guys who would be questionable upgrades on Brandon Fusco and Wes Schweitzer, if they’re upgrades at all. That puts pressure on the Falcons to either enter the market early, which is typically pricy, or use multiple draft picks to select a starting guard option and long-term starting tackle option, and that in turn leaves them starting Schweitzer, Fusco, or a lower-cost alternative at one of the guard spots. Given the learning curve for rookie offensive linemen, it’s conceivable (but unlikely, given their offseason campaign pledge) that they’ll go into the year with no fresh faces starting at all.
But we did expect Sambrailo to return, and we did expect the Falcons to look hard at investing in guard in the draft. If that’s the plan and they pick the right guard on the draft’s second day, there’ll be little to complain about, and their nine total selections means they can move around to get the kind of compelling long-term options we’d all like to see them pick up. The Falcons can reasonably trot out a starting five of Matthews, Schweitzer/Fusco, Mack, a rookie and Sambrailo if they also can show fans that they’ve got their 2020 or 2021 right tackle starter marinating on the roster, plus an interesting young guard option positioned to take over down the line. If they don’t and the offensive line improvements turn out to be minimal, well, hoo.
There’s still plenty of time for the Falcons to draft a tackle to compete with Sambrailo, move on from Schraeder, and otherwise improve both lines to a degree where we can feel comfortable with their 2019 chances. But while Sambrailo’s signing is defensible and expected, we’re going to have a lot of questions if it turns out the Falcons think he’s the answer at right tackle in 2019 and beyond.