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Expect a heated battle for Falcons interior OL jobs

The preseason competition won’t be as intense as Winterfell, but it may be close.

Atlanta Falcons v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Let’s start with my take: The Falcons will probably have nine offensive linemen on the initial 53-man roster. If not, given their history under Dan Quinn, I’d say that keeping eight is more likely than keeping ten.

I’d also say that barring injuries, Matthews, Mack, Carpenter, Brown, Lindstrom, McGary and Sambrailo are set to fill seven of those spots. That leaves probably two, at most three, and perhaps just one remaining opening for Wes Schweitzer, John Wetzel, Adam Gettis, Sean Harlow, Matt Gono and the incoming undrafted prospects or other future signings.

The competition is going to be intense.

One key factor that will help any of the remaining candidates stand out will be versatility. In particular, the backup center spot is up for grabs. Since offensive linemen aren’t particularly useful for special teams duties, it’s typical to keep just two active backups on the 46-man game day active roster and put anyone else on the seven man inactive list. The two active reserves are usually a tackle (frequently called the “swing tackle”) and one active interior player, who backs up all three interior positions.

That last part will be the critical factor in the competition among our remaining backup linemen. Unless one of your other starters can slide in to center, you have to be comfortable with your active reserve guy stepping in at center as well as playing guard. And as the team found out the hard way in 2015, you can’t just throw in a random prospect because you like his blocking, start cross training him at center at the last minute and expect him to succeed.

So there’s a clear need for a backup center, and that might turn out to be the only remaining roster spot for the offensive line candidates. The odd twist: none of them have experience in that role. The position is completely up for grabs.

A quick recap, then.

Adam Gettis

We heard when he signed that he can play center. He was with Tampa before coming here, so Koetter has some familiarity with him and was likely a factor in the Falcons signing him. He has another advantage in that he’s dirt cheap on the cap.

But he’s far from a lock. It might be true that he “can” play center, but he lacks actual game experience at center - or at any other position for that matter. He has only 17 total career game appearances with just one start, and he hasn’t appeared in a regular season game at all since 2016. By comparison, Mike Person also had 17 games of career experience when he joined the Falcons in 2015. He didn’t have that one career start quite yet, but he had at least appeared in every regular season game the prior year.

Gettis is already 30 years old, so there isn’t any developmental potential. His advantages are that he is dirt cheap on the cap and that Dirk Koetter has had experience with him in Tampa. If he really has practiced at center before, he’s less likely to muff snaps during OTAs and minicamp than most of the others.

Wes Schweitzer

The “bonus” sixth rounder (selected with a pick gained by trading down two spots before drafting Deion Jones) may be the true wild card of the group. He’s versatile, has experience and is still young and developing. He’ll turn 26 as the regular season is getting underway. By comparison, Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl weren’t able to win opening day starting spots (or in Dahl’s case, even a roster spot) until age 27.

Schweitzer is still developing (in particular, still building functional strength) but already has 29 starts of game experience under his belt. He played tackle in college and guard in the Shanahan/Sarkisian system. If he cross-trained at center and ended up winning the #2 center role, he would have the potential to fill in at any position on the line if necessary. The key downside is that he would essentially be starting from scratch in his efforts to learn the center position.

He also triggers the Proven Performance Escalator this year. That’s an odd clause that essentially levels the playing field for late round picks. Drafted players sign four-year rookie contracts where the undrafted guys sign contracts only lasting up to three years. That makes the undrafted free agent eligible for restricted free agency after three years, where the guys who got drafted would be stuck playing for league minimum salary. The PPE makes up for this by taking drafted players who meet certain playing time requirements and bumping their base salaries up to the lowest level RFA tender.

Schweitzer meets the playing time requirements, so his base salary kicks up to $2.025 million this year.

Sean Harlow

The 2017 fourth rounder played tackle in college but hasn’t cracked a roster yet, even at guard. But the upside potential is certainly there, he’s dirt cheap on the cap, and he still has practice squad eligibility remaining if the team wants to keep him but can’t find room on the roster.

That’s probably the most important aspect of Harlow. It isn’t roster-or-nothing with him quite yet. If he cross-trains at center, he’d be an interesting choice to snap the ball for the scout team as a member of the practice squad. That might be his best chance at extending his NFL career.

John Wetzel

The free agent is another true wild card. He’s inexpensive, turns 28 just before training camp gets underway and has 24 career starts (40 total games) with experience playing all four guard and tackle positions. If the Falcons keep nine linemen, he’d be a solid choice for the final spot even if he doesn’t learn how to snap the ball.

One caution might be that the struggling Cardinals didn’t want to keep him around. But I wouldn’t put too much stock in that, as we just saw that the incoming coaching staff didn’t even want last year’s first rounder. They’re clearing out anyone they can to bring in their own players.

If he does well this summer, his versatility gives him a strong shot at the ninth spot in the group even if he doesn’t train as a center. He stands to be a key player to watch in the preseason exhibition games.

Matt Gono

The team liked him enough to stash him on the roster last year rather than risk putting him through waivers to get him onto the practice squad. But that was last year. He will be an improved player this year, but the overall quality and depth of the line sets the bar much, much higher now than a year ago.

He has full practice squad eligibility, which is the best thing working in his favor as far as Atlanta is concerned. He’s also the perfect example of the saying that prospects are playing the preseason games to impress other coaching staffs as much as their own. While Gono is a long shot to make the roster here, he has an excellent chance of claimed off of waivers or at least landing a practice squad berth here or elsewhere.

And there’s one more candidate for the backup center role - perhaps even the odds-on favorite:

The Player To Be Named Later

The front office still might not be done adding free agents, plus there’s also potential for a late trade or waiver wire pickup. We’ve seen that before with the trades for Andy Levitre and Ty Sambrailo and the waiver claim for Gino Gradkowski. If no one in the current lineup stands out as a strong backup center candidate, expect an addition to the group.