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Falcons post-2019 roster review: Tackle edition

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The Falcons will head into 2020 with both tackle spots settled, and could have a great duo on their hands if Kaleb McGary develops.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Today’s roster review will take us to tackle, a position the Falcons have taken pains to transform in recent years. Pre-2014 they were leaning on the likes of Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, and even Jeremy Trueblood to protect Matt Ryan, with predictably disastrous results. While Ryan got destroyed again this year, it can’t all be laid at the feet of the tackles, with Jake Matthews settling in as one of the league’s better options and Kaleb McGary hopefully headed for a long stint as a quality starter himself.

The stats aren’t as plentiful for offensive linemen as they are for, say, wide receivers and tight ends, so I’ve rounded up games played, snaps, sacks allowed, penalties, and Pro Football Focus grades. Let’s get to it.

Starters

LT Jake Matthews

2019 stats: 16 games, 1163 snaps, 8 sacks allowed, 7 total penalties, 79.7 Pro Football Focus grade

Contract: Locked up through 2023

Jake Matthews is pretty underrated, all in all. He is prone to at least 1-2 bad games per season—and they were doozies this year, unfortunately—but routinely grades out as one of the better tackles in the NFL. This year, he probably earned himself more recognition as such by throwing some highlight reel-worthy blocks.

Matthews was incredibly durable this year and remained a solid run blocker and effective in pass protection, the lapses mentioned above notwithstanding. He accounted for just under 1/6th of the total number of sacks the team allowed, pretty good for one of five starters, and largely handled a difficult crew of opposing pass rusher well.

Importantly for Atlanta, Matthews is one of a handful of long-term pieces that should be here for most of the rest of Matt Ryan’s prime, as his deal carries him through the next four seasons in Atlanta. Given that he’s only turning 28 in February, Ryan should have the blindside protector he’s needed his entire career until he’s ready to hang up his cleats. It’s nice not to worry about one position, at least.

RT Kaleb McGary

2019 Stats: 16 games, 1,104 snaps, 13 sacks allowed, 5 total penalties, 53.0 Pro Football Focus grade

Contract: 3 years remaining, 5th year option in play for 2023

Matthews’ bookend had a more adventurous rookie campaign. McGary’s summer was derailed by a heart procedure, but he wound up getting a ton of experience as the starter for nearly every snap on the right side. That experience will prove invaluable going forward, but he took his lumps this year.

In all, McGary accounted for over 25% of all sacks allowed by this line in 2019, getting absolutely destroyed at times by speed rushers. That’s a long-term concern because one of the knocks on McGary was how quickly he could move his feet and deal with that speed. He did not give up those sacks by accident, and during his worst games he was absolutely brutalized by opposing pass rushers who countered his strength with quick feet and technique. Early on in the year, the run blocking

There were plenty of positive signs, however. For stretches, McGary was an absolute bulldozer in the run game, paving the path for some of Devonta Freeman and Brian Hill’s best totes of 2019. He also occasionally clamped down impressively on opposing pass rusher, including a borderline dominant game against Cameron Jordan out of the bye. The potential is very clearly there, and it will simply be up to the Falcons and McGary himself to ensure he’s playing better and more consistently in 2020.

He’ll go into the year as the unquestioned starter, though, and if he’s better the entire line and entire offense will benefit. It’d be nice if he could settle in to play as well as peak Ryan Schraeder (or even better, if you want to be incredibly greedy), but chances are there will still be some rough patches next season.

Reserves

T Ty Sambrailo

2019 stats: 16 games, 95 snaps, 1 total penalty, 55.1 Pro Football Focus grade

Contract: 2 years remaining

Sambrailo’s extremely entertaining touchdown aside, he wasn’t much of a factor for this Falcons offense in 2019, playing just a small number of snaps in relief. Pro Football Focus was not a huge fan.

Sambrailo did play well down the stretch in 2018 in relief of Ryan Schraeder, which is a major reason he was re-signed in the first place. The team has since gone out of their way to ensure he will be the swing tackle, and barring a draft pick joining the team at the position, he’s the most logical candidate for that role again in 2020. Hopefully that comes with more sweet touchdown grabs.

Sambrailo’s contract makes him a logical cut candidate this offseason, but the Falcons also don’t have another swing tackle candidate if they’re intent on Matt Gono primarily playing guard. He’s more likely to be cut post-2020, when the Falcons will save over $4 million by moving on.

T/G John Wetzel

2019 stats: 2 games, 18 snaps

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Poor John Wetzel. Nobody bounced on and off the roster more in 2019 than the reserve offensive lineman, and all he got for his troubles were a lousy 18 snaps.

Wetzel’s versatility—he can and has played both guard and tackle in the past—makes him a candidate to return in 2020, though we didn’t get a long enough look at him to see how it’ll go if he has to play. With any luck, Matthews and McGary will be healthy and effective enough that he won’t be called upon, but I hope he can at least stay on a roster all year, wherever he winds up.

T Lukayus McNeil

2019 stats: N/A

Contract: Reserve/future contract

McNeil, 25, is a large lad who is listed as an inch taller and 17 points heavier than Sambrailo, making him the heaviest tackle on the roster.

He’s around as a developmental option for this team, and the Falcons definitely need one. We’ll see if there’s a draft pick joining him for competition or if McNeil will head into the year as the de facto practice squad tackle, the role he filled over the last month-plus of the season.

Outlook: Solid

Matthews is pretty terrific and McGary has a lot of promise, while Sambrailo is at least a useful reserve. This group is once again in the position of needing a developmental option for a future swing tackle vacancy—and they urgently need one if they’re going to cut Sambrailo for cap relief—but otherwise this group is set up decently. An inexpensive veteran and a draft pick could be joining the group, but that likely depends on how much they like McNeil and whether they are willing to roll with Sambrailo instead of saving over $3 million in cap space.

Compared to guard, which is a jumbled mess outside of Chris Lindstrom, and center, where Alex Mack remains great but is getting older, tackle is pretty well set up for the next few years. McGary’s development and the team’s ability to get an affordable swing tackle will mean the difference between it saying a solid group and becoming a great one.