As the dust clears around free agency, the Falcons seem to be pretty much done with additions until the draft. While we don’t have official numbers on many of their new deals, we can probably expect the team to have spent the vast majority of their available cap space (which is currently listed at $13.8M after cuts and restructures). There may be some additional tinkering after June 1st—when Atlanta will get back $10.75M from Desmond Trufant’s cut—but until then there probably isn’t much wiggle room.
Today we’re going to take a look at the current projected starting offensive line for the Falcons in 2020. Based on what we know, I’ll try to make an educated prediction about the most likely outcome for the unit, and also the best case outcome. Atlanta has invested a lot of resources into making the OL a quality unit, but it simply didn’t pan out in 2019 due to injury and poor play from the LG position. Can the unit improve in 2020? Let’s investigate.
Projected Starting OL
LT: Jake Matthews (Reserve: Matt Gono)
Jake Matthews turned in another strong season in 2019, and has proved himself to be a stalwart on an often crappy Falcons OL. He’s generally fared better in pass protection than run blocking, but Matthews has few glaring weaknesses and is still just 28 years old. Behind him, UDFA Matt Gono appears to have earned enough trust for the coaching staff to move on from the overpaid Ty Sambrailo. Unless another rookie OT (very unlikely) or free agent joins the fray, Gono is the heavy favorite to win the swing tackle job in 2020.
LG: Jamon Brown (Reserve: James Carpenter)
Both Jamon Brown and James Carpenter were free agent busts for the Falcons in 2019, and due to their guarantee-heavy contracts, both are sticking around for 2020. In an ideal world, Jamon Brown would improve and take control of LG—he’s 4 years younger (27) than Carpenter (31) and still could theoretically continue to develop. It’s important to note that Brown had his best years playing RG in Los Angeles (2017) and New York (2018), so perhaps the adjustment to the left side impacted his play. Carpenter is a solid option—particularly as a backup—but his upside is fairly limited at this point.
C: Alex Mack (Reserve: Rookie/Free Agent)
Alex Mack wasn’t quite the elite center we’re used to seeing in 2019, but he still played very well (top-10 by most metrics). Mack will be 35 in 2020 and is entering the final year of his contract, so the Falcons would be wise to invest in his successor in the upcoming NFL Draft. Right now, there don’t really appear to be any obvious backups for Mack on the roster—further reinforcing the idea that Atlanta plans to add someone in the draft. We could also see a late free agent addition during camp.
RG: Chris Lindstrom (Reserve: Justin McCray)
Chris Lindstrom missed the majority of the season due to an early-season injury, but came back and played very well to close out the year. We can argue all day about whether or not his selection at 14 was “good value”, but if Lindstrom is a good-to-great guard in 2020, it won’t matter much. Behind him is a newcomer in recent free agent addition Justin McCray, who has played both guard and tackle during his career. He’s most comfortable (and successful) at guard, so that’s where I have him slotted.
RT: Kaleb McGary (Reserve: John Wetzel)
Kaleb McGary had a health scare during training camp which caused him to miss the entire preseason. That undoubtedly slowed his development, but McGary returned and had an up-and-down 2019 season. For the Falcons offensive line to be truly good, McGary will have to take a significant step forward in 2020. He was a strong run blocker, but his pass protection was hit-or-miss. Consistency and improving his technique will be key for McGary going forward. Behind him is Matt Gono as the swing tackle, but another reserve is likely to be John Wetzel—who has experience at both tackle and guard.
At this point in the offseason, the Falcons look fairly strong at LT, C, and RG. Matthews, Mack, and Lindstrom all inspire confidence and should be above-average starters at worst. The two question marks are at LG and RT. Jamon Brown and James Carpenter failed to impress despite their lofty price tags in 2019, and it’s imperative that one steps up and provides at least average starter play. My money would be on Brown, who is younger and had to transition back to the left side after years on the right. Kaleb McGary had some strong games and some forgettable ones in 2019, but his development into an above-average starter is absolutely critical for this offensive line in 2020.
The only glaring hole in the unit is backup center, where the Falcons don’t have anyone with significant experience. I refuse to believe Sean Harlow is making this roster as the backup center in 2020. There are a number of quality interior offensive linemen Atlanta could pursue in the draft: Cesair Ruiz or Lloyd Cushenberry early, Matt Hennessy or Tyler Biadasz on Day 2, or Jake Hanson late. Based on the team’s current moves—the lack of a center added in free agency and no extension for Mack—it seems likely they’re targeting one of these players, probably on the earlier end.
The most likely scenario for the Falcons offensive line is probably average overall play. Normally, that would be enough for an offense to be productive, but in Dirk Koetter’s scheme that simply isn’t the case. However, I think the best case scenario is as follows:
Jake Matthews has a tremendous season, cementing himself as one of the best pass-blocking LTs in the NFL as he enters his prime years. Jamon Brown finally gets comfortable at LG and turns in an above-average performance, with flashes of brilliance as a run blocker. Alex Mack continues playing at a fringe top-10 level, but his improved supporting cast makes him look even better. Chris Lindstrom has a Pro Bowl-caliber season at RG, continuing his streak of strong play from 2019 and proving he was a worthy selection at 14. Kaleb McGary takes a significant step forward in pass protection and is an above-average starter overall, with fewer lapses and much more consistent play.
If the Falcons somehow manage to pull off this rosy scenario and the line largely stays healthy—a la 2016—the team could manage to be a top-10 or better offensive line in 2020. The investment is there for this unit to reach lofty heights, but at the end of the day, Dirk Koetter’s scheme may be what truly holds them back. It’s simply very difficult for pass blockers to execute, and it makes the unit look worse than it is.
What are your projections for the Falcons offensive line in 2020? Do you think the unit will improve from 2019, stay largely the same, or even regress? Do you expect the Falcons to add Alex Mack’s successor and/or backup in the draft, or free agency?