The Atlanta Falcons are in the midst of an offensive line rebuild. Prior to free agency, the team had two quality starters entrenched: LT Jake Matthews—who was just named to his first Pro Bowl in 2018—and All-Pro C Alex Mack. Outside of those two, no one appeared to be safe. Longtime RT Ryan Schraeder was released for cap savings after two down years. LG Andy Levitre was not re-signed in free agency. RG Brandon Fusco could possibly be on the chopping block.
Additions began in free agency. First, the team brought back swing tackle Ty Sambrailo—who finished 2018 as the starter at right tackle and played quite well—on a 3-year deal. Then, two guards were brought in: James Carpenter and Jamon Brown. Based on their contracts, both are expected to start. Recently, the team signed C/G Adam Gettis, presumably to back-up Alex Mack at center.
Even though all three “vacancies” on the offensive line have been addressed, it seems clear that the Falcons aren’t finished adding talent. The signings of Carpenter, Brown, and Gettis make it seem very unlikely that Atlanta is planning to add an interior offensive lineman early in the 2019 NFL Draft. But what about OT, where the team has invested considerable scouting resources and time? Does Ty Sambrailo’s contract prevent the Falcons from adding the RT of the future? Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.
On the surface, Sambrailo’s contract looks like a starter’s deal. When first reported, agents talked up the $18M maximum value of the contract. But the “real” value of the deal without playtime or playoff escalators is $14.25M, and only $6M is guaranteed. If you look more closely at the structure of the cap hits, however, the contract is really a “bridge starter” deal with easy outs for the Falcons in 2020 and especially in 2021.
Dan Quinn has called Sambrailo a “starter”, and I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that he’s lying. I do think the Falcons view Sambrailo as a starting option. If Atlanta went into the 2019 season with Sambrailo at the top of the depth chart, I think the team would be comfortable with that. After all, Sambrailo is two years removed from his disastrous early career in Denver. While he didn’t see the field much in 2017 for the Falcons, his 2018 play was much improved. Sambrailo looked like he could be a serviceable-to-good starter on the right side.
Sambrailo is still young at 27, but the Falcons would be wise to “hedge their bets” by adding a high-upside rookie to the mix. It’s clear that Atlanta wants to add an offensive tackle in the first three rounds based on their scouting. They’ve shown interest in several first round targets, like Jawaan Taylor, Cody Ford, Andre Dillard, and Dalton Risner. The team has also looked into potential Day 2 options, with a lot of attention paid to Tytus Howard and Kaleb McGary in particular.
Based on what we know, I believe the Falcons are targeting a Day 2 developmental OT. Atlanta will consider one of the first round OTs at 14 if their top choices are gone, but I think that’s more of a fallback plan. So, let’s say the Falcons do go after Tytus Howard—who seems to be one of their top targets. Howard is a physical marvel with some impressive highs on tape, but his technique is incredibly raw. He’ll almost certainly need a year to develop before being thrust into the lineup.
That’s where Ty Sambrailo’s value—and contract—make the most sense. In 2019, Sambrailo carries a cap hit of only $3.25M. If he ends up starting the season at RT and plays well, that’s a bargain—though he will likely early some incentive-based pay that could bring his total up closer to $6M. If Atlanta does elect to draft an OT at 14 and Sambrailo loses the starting job, $3.25M is a pricey but not unheard of contract for a swing tackle.
In 2020, the Falcons will then have a lot of flexibility with Sambrailo. If Tytus Howard or a similar draft pick still needs time—or if Sambrailo is playing really well—the team can keep him at a cap hit of $5.75M. In the case that someone like Howard is ready to start or the Falcons drafted a first-round OT in 2019, the team can move on from Sambrailo quite easily. If made a post-June 1st cut, Sambrailo would carry only a $1M dead cap hit and save the team a whopping $4.75M in cap space.
In 2021, Atlanta is in essentially the same place. If Sambrailo has been a great RT and/or the developmental rookie has disappointed, you can keep him at a $5.25M cap hit—which is still a bargain for a good OT. If the Falcons are ready to move on, you lose only $1M in dead cap and save $4.25M in cap space.
As you can see, Ty Sambrailo’s contract doesn’t prevent the Falcons from adding their right tackle of the future in the 2019 NFL Draft. If anything, his presence gives Atlanta the flexibility to target their preferred player—whether that’s a first round OT like Cody Ford, or a Day 2 developmental player like Tytus Howard. The team can go into the draft with the knowledge that they have a—hopefully—capable bridge starter in place, and that allows them to pick the player that’s the best fit for the team depending on how the draft plays out.
What are your thoughts on the right tackle situation with Ty Sambrailo? Do you expect him to be the starter in 2019? Do you think the Falcons still take an OT in the 2019 NFL Draft?