The Falcons decided their offense needed two things: A change at offensive coordinator and a rebuild of the offensive line. Two first round picks and many millions later, they’ve accomplished both goals, and now the offense is positioned to be as elite as it’s been since Kyle Shanahan roamed the sidelines. If all goes well, of course.
Suffice to say the offensive line looks better and deeper than it did a year ago. The Falcons are trying to improve that line right now while Matt Ryan is playing the best football of his life—his three year run from 2016-2018 has seen him throw 93 of his 295 career touchdown passes—and also build an elite unit to protect him as he ages. There are still question marks here, but they’re much less urgent than they were in February.
There’s a little uncertainty here, but only a little.
Jake Matthews is locked in at left tackle. He emerged as one of the five or so best left tackles in the game last year, and with youth, a long-term deal, and a still-developing toolkit, he could be special for the next 5-10 years. The Falcons have their franchise bedrock at left tackle, and when all is said and done it’s quite possible he’ll be the second best player to man the position in franchise history, behind only should-be Hall of Famer Mike Kenn. It took a little while, but Matthews has arrived and left tackle is set.
Left guard is up in the air but the Falcons will likely use either veteran James Carpenter or rookie first rounder Chris Lindstrom there. Carpenter is a dependable sort who fares pretty well as a run blocker and in pass protection, but has notable misadventures in both as a full-time starter. He’d be a one-to-two year stopgap if he took the job. Lindstrom, meanwhile, is an exciting young guard with elite athleticism and a tremendous college career under his belt, but he’ll have to adjust to the NFL where his opposition is bigger, stronger, and faster than he’s used to. No doubt he’d be a better option at left guard than Carpenter over the long haul, but he’ll have his growing pains if he winds up there.
Center is Alex Mack’s position. It’s a mark of just how elite the veteran has been that his play fell off last year a bit and he still was one of the best two or three centers in football, and he should be able to finish out his contract in Atlanta on a strong note, if nothing else. Having him helps a great deal as the Falcons try to break in new options at guard around him.
Right guard will come down to either Lindstrom, who has been practicing there a lot, or veteran Jamon Brown. The latter is a huge, strong guard with stretches of elite run blocking play under his belt and at least flashes of quality pass protection, but an overall uneven history with the Rams and Giants. He has the upside to be a mauler at the position but Lindstrom would appear to be running ahead of him at the moment.
Then there’s right tackle, where rookie Kaleb McGary is the odds-on favorite to win. McGary is fresh off a pretty dominant senior season where he excelled in pass protection and showed strong run blocking chops, and the Falcons seem eager to press him into service. Again, expect some early growing pains, but McGary’s good enough to be an asset right away.
At tackle, there’s Ty Sambrailo, a couple of veterans, and some projects. Sambrailo is the swing tackle unless he miraculously beats out McGary for the starting job, and his strong 2018 and quality athleticism make him at least a passable starter in case of emergency. John Wetzel is a big, burly veteran with experience across the line and at least replacement level play wherever he’s ended up, making him a solid choice for the last lineman the team keeps. Dieugot Joseph and Matt Gono are projects and look like longshots at the moment, though Gono cross-trained a bit at guard and remains young enough and interesting enough to push his way into a role down the line. Undrafted free agent Jaelin Robinson could push for a practice squad spot if the team doesn’t keep Joseph or Gono around for that
At guard, the team’s top option will be Brown or Carpenter, depending on which one gets sent to the bench. They’ll also almost certainly keep Wes Schweitzer, who has extensive starting experience at left and right guard for this Falcons team and offers quality athleticism and a track record of at least decent play. Schweitzer also may be called upon to be Alex Mack’s de facto backup at center—he’s been listed there before—and hopefully will never have to see the field in that role. Beyond those two, former fourth rounder and 2018 practice squad player Sean Harlow is still lurking and developing, while Adam Gettis brings Schweitzer’s ability to play the interior spots at a lower price, if the Falcons want to go that route.
Rookie undrafted free agent Chandler Miller is the only other true center on the roster beyond Mack, which might be enough to earn him a practice squad spot heading into the year. He’s a longshot to make the roster with Carpenter/Brown, Schweitzer, Sambrailo, and Wetzel probably close to locked in.
This should be one of the better, deeper groups the Falcons have had in a while. Matthews and Mack are among the better players in the league at their respective positions, Lindstrom and McGary have a ton of talent and upside, and Carpenter and Brown should offer solid guard play in 2019, regardless of which one starts. Their depth should feature multiple players with significant starting experience, and guys like Schweitzer and Wetzel have enough versatility to step up at multiple spots if the need arises.
After watching Ryan Schraeder struggle mightily for long stretches of 2019—injury possibly being a factor there—and seeing their two starting guards get hurt and force them to shuffle the deck, the Falcons aren’t taking many chances when it comes to injury decimating them this year. But they also went out and made the line the offseason’s biggest priority, sinking dollars and draft picks into upgrading the overall talent level. There are sure to be hiccups because Carpenter and Brown are not elite players and Lindstrom and McGary are only rookies, but it’d be surprising if the offensive line was not significantly better in 2019 than it was in 2018.