It’s no secret that the biggest positional flaw on the Falcons’ roster was at guard. For all the concerns on the defensive line, they still have plenty of talent there.
Grady Jarrett is one of the premier defensive tackles in the league. Despite coming off a somewhat down season, Takkarist McKinley is capable of becoming a difference maker. Jack Crawford made a genuine impact as an interior pass rusher. There are pieces to work with on the defensive line. On the other side, Jake Matthews and Alex Mack are the only above-average starters on the roster. Not having a single guard on the roster the Falcons truly felt good about from an injury or talent perspective meant the front office had to be aggressive in free agency,
We know that because the Falcons didn’t waste time by signing James Carpenter to a four-year deal. Signing Carpenter represents a change in their overall philosophy. Instead of focusing on guards in the 295-300 pound range, they opted to sign someone in the 320-pound range. Carpenter is someone who will bring more physicality and consistency to an offensive line that can certainly use it. With multiple season-ending injuries derailing Andy Levitre’s career and Wes Schweitzer failing to prove himself as a starter, Carpenter will be expected to slot into the open left guard slot.
I put together a breakdown of Carpenter’s strengths and weaknesses. This is what stood out from watching the Jets play against Jacksonville, Minnesota, and Indianapolis. These are three teams the Falcons will be facing this upcoming season.
Fundamentally sound in pass protection
2nd quarter: 2nd & 1 at IND 36
For all the claims about Carpenter being this nasty run blocker, it’s what he does in pass protection that stands out the most. Carpenter is a bigger tactician than given credit for. He moves fluidly for a massive left guard, which allows him to use those massive paws effectively. This is an excellent rep in showcasing his capabilities as a well-rounded blocker. The Jets are desperately trying to get in better field goal range before halftime. With Sam Darnold needing a clean pocket to throw downfield, the offensive line provides him with outstanding protection. Carpenter is at the forefront of it by controlling Jihad Ward the entire way. It’s hard to recall many moments from last season, where Matt Ryan was given time in the pocket for this long. The Falcons are in dire need of guards who can pass protect as well as this.
2nd quarter: 1st & 10 at NYJ 22
Carpenter had to face a plethora of talented interior pass rushers against Jacksonville. Squaring off against someone like Malik Jackson can get tricky. Jackson knows how to combine power and explosiveness better than most defensive tackles. His agility can give guards fits, along with his violent hands. By using a quick stutter step and cross chop, Jackson is trying to force Carpenter out of position. The former first round pick remains composed with his wide stance and active hands. He stays in front of Jackson long enough for Darnold to step in the pocket and complete a 16-yard pass to Quincy Enunwa.
2nd quarter: 1st & 10 at NYJ 42
Calais Campbell is the next ferocious pass rusher on the docket. Other than Aaron Donald, there isn’t a more devastating interior rusher in the league than Campbell. His enormous frame and long arms will tear opposing guards apart. There weren’t many situations where Carpenter was isolated against Campbell. On one of the few occasions, Carpenter more than did his part to give Darnold time in the pocket. He anticipated Campbell’s movement from the snap. By shifting his feet inside, Carpenter is able to redirect Campbell away from collapsing the pocket. It’s this type of awareness and strength the Falcons have been sorely lacking at left guard over the past two years when Levitre was sidelined.
3rd Quarter: 3rd & 5 at MIN 41
Carpenter possesses very good footwork for a massive left guard. Look at how crisp his movement is towards getting into an excellent position against Tom Johnson. It allows Carpenter to get in front of the underrated interior pass rusher, which lets him use his greatest asset. His strength can wipe out opposing defensive tackles. To have more than 30 pounds on Johnson gives Carpenter a sizable advantage if he remains well balanced and disciplined. He does so here with sound technique to drive Johnson straight into the ground.
2nd quarter: 2nd and 7 at IND 40
Frequent lapses in concentration proved to be one of the biggest reasons why Carpenter was labeled as a first round bust in Seattle. It’s something that’s been his undoing as a starter for the majority of his career. Carpenter tries to get inside of Grover Stewart to prevent him from getting penetration. The young defensive tackle has other ideas by bursting outside and making him look clumsy. Isaiah Crowell has no other choice than to run into a wall of bodies. A veteran guard like Carpenter shouldn’t be committing these kind of careless errors.
3rd quarter: 3rd & 5 at NYJ 30
Most guards that weight over 320 pounds will struggle in pass protection when isolated against good athletes. For all his struggles against the run, Ward is an impressive athlete who can catch linemen slipping. His counter spin move forces Carpenter to whiff badly. This is a case of Carpenter anticipating an inside move and failing to adjust when Ward spins. Thankfully for Darnold’s sake, Jermaine Kearse gets immediate separation for an easy third down conversion. Carpenter does have not only a tendency of concentration lapses, but can look clumsy on an island against quick interior rushers.
Promise as a run blocker
1st quarter: 1st & 15 at NYJ 20
When Carpenter times his jump properly and knows his responsibility as a blocker, positive plays usually materialize such as this run. He does a solid job of not allowing Marcell Dareus to get much movement. The initial block gives Spencer Long time to set his feet and pick Dareus up in erasing him from the play. After handling his first task, Carpenter gets to the second level at a good angle and blocks the ultra-quick Myles Jack. It’s not the cleanest block, but the veteran guard does enough to give Bilal Powell a crease along with Eric Tomlinson. A nine-yard run into a 24-yard gain, as Jack gets penalized for a blatant facemask. Carpenter affected the young linebacker just enough to force him into a reckless penalty. These are the type of blocks the Falcons will regularly expect from him.
1st quarter: 2nd & 8 at NYJ 21
If an inexperienced defensive tackle rushes in sloppily, Carpenter will make them suffer. Stewart tries to explode through the A-gap by getting under Carpenter. Without having the speed or power to get penetration, he ends up getting completely driven away from the run. Carpenter showcases his nastiness here by getting under his shoulder pads and bulldozing him towards the other side of the field. That allows Powell space to find the cutback lane and pick up nine yards for a first down. You can already envision Devonta Freeman having success similar to this.
Cut blocking woes
3rd quarter: 1st & 10 at JAX 10
One recurring issue in Carpenter’s game consists of his inability to make effective cut blocks. Whether it’s because of his stature or lack of experience from not doing it in Seattle, he struggles to fulfill this responsibility. His only task here is to take safety Ronnie Harrison out at the second level. Carpenter doesn’t take a great angle nor make the necessary contact to knock Harrison completely off balance. He does affect him to an extent, but it’s not enough to give Powell space to accelerate into the open field. A better block would have allowed him to run past Campbell and possibly get into the end zone.
3rd quarter: 1st & 10 at IND 24
Here is another example of Carpenter failing to complete a cut block. It could be a matter of him not being comfortable doing it. He doesn’t seem to fully commit to actually making the block. Ward is able to shed the attempt without much resistance. You have to wonder if the coaching staff will look to coach him up to it or decide not to cut block at all. Levitre and Schweitzer did it quite a bit over the last two seasons. With Dirk Koetter coming in, there will be some alteration to their blocking scheme. Limiting Carpenter’s responsibility as a run blocker and keeping him on his feet is likely the best way to get the most out of him.
After watching tape of his performances from last season, Carpenter appears to be a better player than most suggested. It’s hard to shake off the first round bust label, especially when you’re an offensive lineman. To go from a successful team like the Seahawks to a franchise in disarray like the Jets doesn’t help matters either. Carpenter is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury, which will have to be monitored going into the summer. If he can stay on the field, there is no reason why he can’t be a noticeable upgrade over Schweitzer. How he stacks up with Levitre from 2016-2017 will decide if this was a successful signing.