The Atlanta Falcons went into the 2019 offseason looking to improve their offensive line. We all expected changes to be made when Dan Quinn told the media that he’s comfortable with left tackle (Jake Matthews) and center (Alex Mack) and that beyond that “you scrub every bit of it.” However, I don’t think many people expected to see the kind of overhaul Atlanta has followed through with in regard to the unit.
Matthews and Mack are the last two starters standing on the line from the start of last season, when the Falcons trotted out Matthews, Andy Levitre, Mack, Brandon Fusco, and Ryan Schraeder from left to right. Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland would start plenty of games at the guard positions as well, while right tackle Ty Sambrailo would take over for the struggling Schraeder from Week 12 on.
Levitre, Fusco, Schraeder, and Garland are no longer on the roster. Sambrailo has received an extension to continue serving as the team’s swing tackle with an opportunity to win the starting right tackle job, and Schweitzer figures to be a depth piece in 2019.
Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff prioritized the offensive line in the free agency period, when they extended Sambrailo and then signed James Carpenter and Jamon Brown to presumably fill the starting guard spots. The duo then doubled down on improving the offensive line by selecting OG Chris Lindstrom and OT Kaleb McGary in the first round of the draft, thus completing a drastic revamp of the unit.
There is very recent precedent for this kind of offensive line revamp, and it likely influenced Quinn and Dimitroff into making some of the decisions they made over the past few months. Look back to the 2018 offseason, and you’ll find the Indianapolis Colts engineered one of the best offensive line rebuild projects in NFL history. The hope is that Atlanta will be able to emulate some of the results we saw up in Indianapolis this past season.
The Colts had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL in 2017, when they trotted out a unit of subpar talent and oft-injured starters.
Anthony Castonzo was excellent at the left tackle position and started all 16 games. Jeremy Vujnovich was a durable left guard who didn’t miss a single snap. Beyond that it was a revolving door featuring four different starters at the center position (one of whom was Mike Person), five different starters at right guard, and a right tackle tag team of Denzelle Good and Joe Haeg (each of whom also made at least one start at right guard).
Injuries played a big part in the collapse of Indy’s offensive line as demonstrated by that revolving door of starters, but pretty much everyone not named Castonzo was subpar.
Vujnovich graded out with a horrendous 50.0 overall PFF grade, Ryan Kelly (who was the original starter at C and played in seven games) had a 59.4 grade, Jack Mewhort had a 57.0 mark in five games started (before going down for the season), while the combination of Good and Haeg at RT/RG was slightly better but with grades of 60.4 and 64.1, however neither of them were anything to write home about either.
There are some parallels with the Falcons here, as the Birds featured multiple starters at every position outside of LT and C, with nobody at those at those revolving door positions being particularly good (in fairness, Sambrailo played well in limited time).
The result for the Colts was arguably the worst offensive line in football. The unit gave up a league-high 56 sacks, allowing a sack on a league-high 10.33% of passing attempts. They also opened up few holes in the run game, as Indy running backs rushed for a paltry 1.07 yards before contact, which was the third-worst mark in the NFL.
It got to the point where star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton called out the unit after a 27-0 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 7, saying, “The offensive line just has to play better.”
In one offseason, it was all addressed and rebuilt by general manager Chris Ballard, however. Left tackle Castonzo and center Kelly were the only holdovers on the unit going into 2018, with every other starter getting replaced (sound familiar?).
Ballard went right to work when free agency hit, signing Mike Glowinski (who was actually added off waivers at the end of the 2017 season) and Matt Slauson to cheap contracts. Then he doubled down in the draft by selecting all-world guard prospect Quenton Nelson with the sixth overall pick and reliable tackle Braden Smith high in the second round (sound familiar?).
Nelson was sublime in his rookie season, being voted as a First-Team All-Pro selection at guard. Castonzo was a steady presence in the 11 games he started. Braden Smith showed out at RT as a rookie, even though he was slightly overshadowed by Nelson. Slauson was one of the team’s best pass blockers for the first five games of the season before going down to injury, but Glowinski stepped in and the line didn’t skip a beat. And Kelly showcased better health (playing in 12 games) and a drastic improvement from 2017.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, as the Colts relied on their depth when injury struck, but that depth was readily available because of the additions made in the offseason. Castonzo missed five games, Kelly missed four, Slauson missed 11. The likes of Glowinski and Haeg proved to be invaluable for Indy when it came time to cover those losses.
In just one season, through the draft, free agency and Kelly’s bounce-back, the Colts went from having one plus starter on the offensive line (Castonzo) to five plus starters and some very reliable depth.
The results on the field were instantly prevalent. The Colts allowed a league-low 18 sacks, and allowed just one sack per 2.86% of pass attempts, which was also a league-low. Indy’s o-line also ranked fourth in the league with 4.83 adjusted line yards per carry, according to Football Outsiders.
All of this was a result of Indianapolis investing heavily into its offensive line. Nelson, Kelly, and Castonzo were all first-round selections by the Colts, and Smith was an early second-round selection. Chris Ballard made a concentrated effort to improve Andrew Luck’s protection, and he was rewarded handsomely for it.
So let’s take a look at the parallels between Atlanta’s offensive line going from 2018 into 2019, and Indianapolis’ offensive line going from 2017 into 2018. Atlanta has two holdovers from last season, at left tackle and center, just like Indianapolis. Atlanta added two free agent guards to relative bargain contracts, just like Indianapolis. And Atlanta spent premium draft picks on a left guard (which is the position Lindstrom is likely to play) and right tackle (McGary), just like Indianapolis did.
Chris Ballard and the Colts provided the blueprint to revamping an offensive line last offseason, and Thomas Dimitroff, Dan Quinn, and the Falcons have emulated that blueprint almost to a tee.
Now, I don’t think it’s fair for us to expect improvement from the offensive line as drastic as what Indianapolis saw last season — I don’t think I’ve ever seen an offensive line improve so definitively in just one offseason. Also, while Lindstrom is a great prospect, he’s not quite as good as Nelson was coming out of college.
A good deal of improvement should be expected, however. It’s fair to expect Atlanta’s offensive line to give up fewer than the 42 sacks they conceded last year. It’s fair to expect Atlanta’s offensive line to be better than the ninth-worst run blocking unit according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards per carry statistic.
The Colts went from trotting out arguably the worst offensive line in football to arguably the best offensive line in football in just one offseason. One year later, and the Falcons have emulated their strategy. If they can achieve similar results then there is no ceiling for this offensive unit as a whole.
Chris Ballard built a bully in Indianapolis, and one year later, the Falcons hope that they’ve done the same in Atlanta.