The Falcons told us all along they were going to make the offensive line a priority. Dan Quinn even made an uncharacteristically bold and blunt statement about the line early in the offseason when he suggested the team could replace as many as three starters. The Falcons didn’t have a ton of cap space heading into the year, so it was reasonable to doub that they’d get that done, but lo and behold they’ve overhauled LG, RG, and RT in the span of a single offseason.
The challenge all along has been figuring out exactly what caused the Falcons to address the group with such urgency, given the abundance of needs. The Falcons did not address defensive end with the same ferocity we were expecting—though Tyeler Davison and Adrian Clayborn are both good fits, and John Cominsky could be interesting—and all told poured their two largest free agent contracts and two first round picks into the unit. I’m not suggesting the offensive line was great in 2019, but much of that hinged on Ryan Schraeder’s sudden (and perhaps injury-related) decline, the injuries to both Brandon Fusco and Andy Levitre that forced the Falcons to trot out the likes of Zane Beadles at guard, and therefore could have been partially addressed by glue and duct tape.
It certainly seems that both the owner and the GM arrived at the conclusion that exposing the franchise cornerstone to harm—not to mention a largely woeful rushing attack—was not something they could afford to repeat. From Albert Breer in Sports Illustrated:
Interesting backstory here—After his offensive line disappointed in 2018, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff quietly made a January promise to owner Arthur Blank that it wouldn’t happen again, and pledged that at least one, and maybe two, of his first three picks in the 2019 draft would be spent in that area. Then he did Blank one better by drafting Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom with his first pick (14th overall) before dealing back into the first round to get Washington tackle Kaleb McGary at 31, believing the two would bring a toughness and nastiness Atlanta needs. Add those moves to what the Falcons did in free agency (adding James Carpenter and Jamon Brown), and Dimitroff has followed through with his promise.
In the final analysis, the Falcons executed that plan well. Breer reiterates that Lindstrom was in play at #11 for the Bengals until Jonah Williams fell and would’ve been an option at #18, perhaps instead of Garrett Bradbury to the Vikings. The move up for Kaleb McGary may have deprived the Patriots of a target and certainly snagged him ahead of tackle-needy teams early, and both players have Pro Bowl caliber upside. Given the team’s immediate and long-term needs along the offensive line, it’s hard to argue that anything they did here was a mistake, though it would’ve been nice to have a pick on the draft’s second day.
But there’s something about this anecdote that makes me profoundly uneasy, even if the end result could be very promising. Reading between the lines here, it’s hard to avoid the impression that either Blank demanded that Dimitroff fix the offensive line or Dimitroff had already zeroed in on using significant draft capital on doing so in January, four full months before the 2019 NFL Draft. Either way, the team appears to have locked into drafting 1-2 OL in the early rounds before they could have reasonably looked over all their options in the draft, which carries a very real danger of causing you to ignore players available who can help with other needs. There’s little question the Falcons are Matt Ryan’s team and protecting him is paramount, but this team still has to play defense at a reasonably high level, and they have two safeties returning from injuries and real question marks along the defensive front, question marks that were not addressed the way I think many of us thought they would be. The team’s offense is set up to be a juggernaut for the next 3-5 years, thankfully, but if the defense scuffles again looking back isn’t going to be fun.
In the end, the results still matter most. If Lindstrom and McGary are great and the Falcons are a playoff team—and I’m still betting on that last outcome, at least—these kinds of little nagging questions about the team’s process and planning will vanish just like that. The uncomfortable thing is trying to make sense of three coordinator firings, a team locked on to offensive linemen, and a restless-or-maybe-not-that-restless owner without letting a little bit of fear slip in here in May.