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Who will be the Falcons’ starting left guard in 2019?

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The Falcons added three starting guards in the 2019 offseason: free agents Jamon Brown and James Carpenter, and first-round pick Chris Lindstrom. Which of the three is likely to open the season at LG?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have added a ton of offensive line help over the course of the 2019 offseason. The two stalwarts, LT Jake Matthews and C Alex Mack, remain in place for the foreseeable future—but what about the other three positions? Atlanta moved on from all three of 2018’s starters in LG Andy Levitre, RG Brandon Fusco, and RT Ryan Schraeder. They also let Ben Garland—the primary interior backup—walk in free agency.

Atlanta was clearly unhappy with the construction of 3/5ths of their offensive line, and so they went about completely reshaping the unit in 2019. 2018 swing tackle/guard Ty Sambrailo was brought back on a fairly substantial contract. In addition to Wes Schweitzer—who remains on his rookie contract—the team brought in two guards: James Carpenter and Jamon Brown. The Falcons added veteran camp competition in C/G Adam Gettis and G/T John Wetzel.

Then the team shocked us all by selecting two more offensive linemen in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft: G Chris Lindstrom from Boston College, and OT Kaleb McGary from Washington. Apparently, when Blank spoke about how important it was to protect Matt Ryan, he wasn’t kidding around.

The emphasis on the offensive line was important, and long overdue—the Falcons under Quinn and Dimitroff had largely ignored the OL in the draft, outside of a few Day 3 selections. Now Atlanta will enter training camp with more OL depth and competition than we’ve seen in a very long time.

One of the biggest questions from this group is: who will wind up playing left guard when the season begins? Quinn is big on competition, so there’s plenty of room for surprises here, but we can gain some insight on the team’s plans from a financial perspective by looking at the contracts of the guards they brought in during free agency.

Prior to the draft, it was clear that James Carpenter would start at LG and Jamon Brown would start at RG. With the addition of Chris Lindstrom, things get a lot more interesting. Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these players and their contract situations to determine the most likely course of action.

Jamon Brown

Positions Played (NFL): RG, RT
Positions Played (College): LT, RT

After spending his entire collegiate career playing tackle (with two full seasons at LT and one at RT), Jamon Brown made the transition to right guard early in his NFL career. Since then, Brown’s trajectory as a player has been on the upswing. He started nine games for the Rams in 2015, five in 2016, and all 16 in 2017. Early in 2018, Brown was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He subsequently lost his starting job to Austin Blythe and was cut mid-season. The Giants picked him up, and he started eight games for them in 2018—and looked pretty good in the process.

Financially, Brown received a significantly bigger contract than the other free agent addition, James Carpenter. As such, his deal is far more difficult to get out of—in fact, it’s essentially impossible—before 2021.

As you can see from the chart, cutting Brown prior to 2021 carries at least $6.3M in dead cap for only $250K in savings. There’s no way to justify making that cut from a financial standpoint. However, the Falcons could easily get out of Brown’s deal in 2021—where the team would save $6M by moving on.

With Brown a proven veteran presence at RG, it would make the most sense for him to man that position from 2019-2021 if at all possible. However, Brown does have some experience playing on the left side from his college days, so we shouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of Brown moving to LG.

Verdict: Starting RG

James Carpenter

Positions Played (NFL): LG, RG, RT
Positions Played (College): LT

Another player that spent their entire collegiate career at LT and eventually ended up transitioning to guard in the NFL, James Carpenter saw his stock rise significantly after winning a National Championship with Alabama. The Seahawks took him in the late first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, where he began as a RT for Seattle. Carpenter had an injury-plagued start to his pro career, with an ACL injury ending his 2011 season and keeping him out of the early portion of 2012. After he returned from injury, Carpenter began playing primarily at LG. That’s where he found his NFL home, and he became a starter at LG for both Seattle and the Jets from 2015-2018.

Carpenter never really lived up to his first round billing, but he’s been a solid guard at worst throughout his career. The Falcons gave him a contract that reflected that, while also acknowledging his age—Carpenter will be 30 going into the 2019 season. It’s a far more affordable and team-friendly contract than the one Jamon Brown signed.

As you can see from the above chart, Carpenter’s deal is far more flexible for the Falcons. In 2019, his cap hit is only $2.875M—essentially what Ben Garland was signed for in 2018. In 2020, Carpenter’s cap hit escalates to $5.2M, but Atlanta could make him a post-June 1st cut and save about half of that ($2.5M). His cap hit then escalates one final time in 2021 to $6.45M, but he can be easily cut at this point for substantial savings ($5.25M).

While Carpenter is by far the most experienced LG on the team—I’m certain he would’ve been the starter had the Falcons not drafted Chris Lindstrom—his contract status makes him better suited to be Atlanta’s primary interior backup. At only a $2.875M cap hit, he’s here at a reasonable price to provide starting-caliber depth. Could he still wind up starting at LG, or even RG? Yes, but I think Atlanta’s selection of Chris Lindstrom made both of those scenarios unlikely.

Verdict: Primary interior OL backup

Chris Lindstrom

Positions Played (College): RG, RT

The Falcons added arguably the top guard in the 2019 NFL Draft in Boston College’s Chris Lindstrom. Lindstrom spent his entire college career on the right side, starting the better part of three seasons at RG and one season at RT. It’s unclear if Lindstrom has any previous experience on the left side, but it’s clear he has some positional versatility based on his ability to kick out to tackle. Dimitroff also mentioned in his first round press conference that Lindstrom has some ability to play center.

Obviously with Lindstrom being drafted at pick 14, he’s a part of the Falcons’ plans for the next 4-5 years. The bigger question is: where does he start? Many believe Lindstrom is a plug-and-play starter at RG—and that’s true. But with Jamon Brown—the far more expensive and more difficult to cut veteran—presumably slated to start on the right side, what happens with Lindstrom?

It’s difficult to say, but at the end of the day, either Lindstrom or Brown is moving to LG. My money is on the team transitioning Lindstrom to LG, for a few reasons.

  1. LG is widely viewed as the more valuable position, particularly in pass protection. It makes sense to establish your talented rookie there for the long haul, so he can man the position long-term.
  2. Putting Lindstrom on the left side surrounds him with the Falcons’ top two veteran linemen in Jake Matthews and Alex Mack. He’ll have plenty of support as he adjusts to playing on the left side.
  3. Putting Lindstrom on the left side avoids the possibility of two rookies starting next to each other on the OL. If Lindstrom were to play RG, there’s a very good chance he’s starting next to McGary. Ideally, you try to surround your rookies with veterans.
  4. Having Lindstrom make the transition to LG means that Jamon Brown can remain at his most comfortable—and most successful—position at RG.
  5. If Lindstrom struggles to adjust to LG, you have a veteran fallback option in James Carpenter that can step in.

Verdict: Starting LG

To me, it makes the most sense to “bite the bullet” and have Lindstrom make the transition to LG in his rookie season. That might lead to difficulties early on, but Lindstrom’s football IQ and athleticism should give him a leg up over most prospects. With Jamon Brown having the most success at RG (after several years of development), it just seems like a gamble to force him to play another position.

If the Falcons are going to do this, however, they need to start his transition immediately. Lindstrom should begin training camp at LG and practice there every day to speed his development. We know that Dan Quinn is likely to make the rookies “earn it” over veterans like Carpenter and Sambrailo, but hopefully they’ll allow the eventual starting five to get plenty of reps together in camp.

What are your thoughts on the LG battle? Who would you choose to be the starter there in 2019?