Guard is probably the most maligned position on offense year after year for these Falcons. With their hearts full of hope and their wallets full of cash, the Falcons set about rectifying that in 2019 by signing two expensive free agent options at the position and drafting another one at 14 overall. They also moved promising young tackle Matt Gono to the position and keep Sean Harlow around to lurk menacingly on the practice squad.
After the disappointing, injury-riddled year from Brandon Fusco in 2018 and the continued reliance on Wes Schweitzer that team had to endure, they seemed determined to do things differently. That’s why it was not exactly the plan when we got to the end of the 2019 season and the team’s leader in snaps at the position was...Wes Schweitzer.
The primary argument for getting rid of this current regime varies by fan and analyst, but I think the guard situation has to be near the top of the list. The Falcons could’ve trotted out Schweitzer for one more year without spending millions of dollars and gotten the same or better production than they got from James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, and their unwillingness to play Matt Gono after they hyped him up bordered on infuriating. The Chris Lindstrom pick looks like it’ll work out spectacularly, based on his limited opportunities in 2019, but all the moves the team made around that were malpractice. Full stop.
The good news is that heading into 2020, Lindstrom is an absolute lock as a starter, and the Falcons can at least attempt to remedy the other spot by giving it to a young player, whether that’s a draft pick or Matt Gono. There are a lot of bodies here, though, and that’ll be the subject of today’s review.
LG James Carpenter
2019 stats: 11 games, 675 snaps, 4 sacks allowed, 7 total penalties, 45.3 Pro Football Focus grade
Contract: 3 years remaining; potential out after 2020
To put it mildly, the Carpenter signing looks like an abject disaster. At the same, it just looked like a middling move, but Carpenter’s play, his struggles with injury, and his contract now make it clear the Falcons should never have made the move in the first place.
His Pro Football Focus grade was worse than Jamon Brown, a player the Falcons benched in part for poor play. He was oft-penalized, averaging more than a half a penalty per game. He ultimately dealt with nagging injuries and was shut down with five games to go, and heads into 2020 as either sunk cost (the Falcons can get $1 million back for 2020 by cutting him but will carry a ton of dead money) or a pricey backup. There’s a better-than-solid chance he’s back next year.
Atlanta’s decision to sign two guards while still planning to draft one hurts. The only saving grace for Carpenter is that barring a draft pick addition at the position, he’s probably the favorite to start once again at left guard. The bad news for Atlanta is that Carpenter’s really good year was 2016, and he’s played just 21 of 32 possible games the last two seasons. If the Falcons don’t think he has quality play ahead of him, they may move on just to open up room for other options.
RG Chris Lindstrom
2019 Stats: 5 games, 309 snaps, 0 sacks allowed, 1 total penalty, 66.6 (yikes) Pro Football Focus grade
Contract: 3 years remaining, 5th year option for 2023
It’s fair to wonder how differently this season would’ve gone if Lindstrom had been healthy for all of it. He was an above average guard in his limited opportunities this year, showing that he needs a bit of a work in terms of his run blocking but displaying the pass protection skills and excellent technical ability that got him drafted 14th overall in the first place.
I’m not at all worried about Lindstrom, who has All-Pro upside and a capable starting guard floor. So long as he’s healthy, he’s going to be fine, and the Falcons have one guard spot locked down. At last.
G Jamon Brown
2019 stats: 10 games, 587 snaps, 0 sacks, 6 total penalties, 53.2 Pro Football Focus grade
Contract: 2 years remaining; potential out after 2021
Brown’s sloppiness may have been what got him benched, as he was certainly penalty prone in 2019. It’s striking to look at how he fared versus Carpenter and realize that he was the one getting benched, however.
Brown’s protracted benching—which lasted even after Carpenter was injured—is one of the enduring mysteries of the season, because to my knowledge the Falcons never directly explained why they did it. I wouldn’t argue that Brown was great, but he was better than Carpenter and the team is even less likely to cut him, given the cap ramifications. He also continued to mentor young offensive linemen after hitting the bench, so it doesn’t seem to be a statement on his locker room presence.
Brown’s status is very much up in the air for 2020, but chances are he’ll return as one of the team’s top backups at guard, albeit a very expensive one. I’d be interested to see how he’d fare at left guard with an offseason focused on competing for that job, but I doubt he’ll be given much of a shake. Unless Carpenter, Brown or both rally in 2020 and play better—and in Brown’s case, get more of a chance to stay in the lineup—these signings are going to go down as two of the worst in recent memory.
G Wes Schweitzer
2019 stats: 15 games, 697 snaps, 2 sacks, 4 total penalties, 56.4 Pro Football Focus grade
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
If the Falcons had not spent a dollar on the guard position this year and Chris Lindstrom had gotten hurt in the same, starting Wes Schweitzer and Matt Gono likely would’ve led to similar results, at worst. Heck, the Falcons might’ve fared better.
Schweitzer heads into free agency with interesting market potential. Teams like Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, who just need players who can move well in the scheme, might find him attractive given his starting experience and sometimes solid results. The Falcons, who have consistently had to start him because of injuries or ineffectiveness at the guard position, could bring him back as well but might not want to spend even the modest sum he’s likely to get on the open market.
Schweitzer was certainly no worse than Brown or Carpenter on balance—I think you can argue he fared much better than Carpenter, really—and if the Falcons aren’t in a position to make major upgrades they should probably consider bringing him back. They’ve aimed to shoot higher than their 2016 sixth rounder for years now, though, and one of these years they’ll actually do it.
G/T Matt Gono
2019 stats: 5 games, 40 snaps, 57.3 Pro Football Focus grade
Contract: 1 year remaining; Restricted Free Agent in 2021
Gono’s 2019 was yet another symptom of a team that can’t get its stuff together along the offensive line. Gono was one of the most hyped players of the offseason, with a legitimate shot at starting at right tackle while Kaleb McGary was going to be out. When McGary returned sooner than expected, Gono’s path to playing time was at guard, where he eventually got the vast majority of his snaps in 2019. He wasn’t stellar in those limited snaps, but he was fine, especially in comparison to the non-Chris Lindstrom options on the roster.
For all that, he got 40 lousy snaps. I very much doubt Gono would’ve done worse at either guard position than Brown or Carpenter had he gotten the starting job, and he’s cheaper than either by orders of magnitude. This team’s insistence on spending money they don’t need to and not giving their young, developmental options a real chance to win a starting job remains absolutely infuriating. I’m hoping Gono will get his overdue shot in 2020, but color me dubious.
G Sean Harlow
2019 stats: 1 snap
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
It’ll be interesting to see what the Falcons do with Harlow, their 2017 fourth rounder and an on-again, off-again presence on the roster and practice squad. Harlow’s athleticism was intriguing coming out of college, but thus far the Falcons haven’t found a spot for him. With Schweitzer potentially moving on, perhaps he’ll be back to push for one of the last spots on the roster again.
The tone of this one was grim, I’ll admit, but that has a lot more to do with my frustration about the process that got the Falcons into their current mess at guard than anything else.
The reality is that they have a very promising young starter in Chris Lindstrom, an interesting young depth/potential starting option in Matt Gono, two experienced veterans in James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, and an opportunity to add more talent to the group in the draft. Lindstrom is the best right guard the Falcons have had in many, many years, and hopefully whatever competition they cobble together this summer will be able to produce a capable starter at the other spot.
It’s beyond obvious that the Falcons need to stop attempting to paper over their guard woes with late round draft selections and free agent signings, however, because they haven’t found a starter they liked with that approach in a long, long time. Beyond the intrigue around a potential draft pick, the possibility of Brown or Carpenter moving on, and questions about Wes Schweitzer’s return, though, what’s here is what you should expect to see for 2020.