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Re-visiting Falcons training camp battles: Left guard

Positional battles are going to be taking place without preseason games.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Training camp is on its way. With the NFL and NFLPA agreeing to the outline of testing protocols and preseason games essentially disappearing, it seems like we’re moving toward most players being on the practice field for July 28, including for the Falcons. If that does happen as scheduled, teams are going to be trying to decide critical position battles and get players up to speed without the benefit of OTAs, minicamps, and preseason games, which will be somewhat of a unique challenge.

The Falcons are a veteran team with most position battles already decided. They have something like two open jobs on offense (third receiver and left guard), a handful on defense, and multiple gigs on special teams yet to be formally decided, which will make training camp critical for many players vying for those roles. Out of all of them, I think it’s fair to argue that few (if any) are more important than left guard. Let’s start there.

Here are the competitors for the job and my projected winner as of today, just under a week before camp practices begin.

Matt Hennessy

NFL Stats: N/A

Hennessy would’ve been the easy favorite for this job in a normal year. The Falcons drafted him in the 3rd round for his pass protection chops and athleticism, making him the likely long-term heir to Alex Mack at center. For this year, though, his pretty advanced game was expected to make him a very strong contender for left guard.

Now that’s up in the air. Hennessy’s talent and ability to pick up the offense pretty quickly are not really in doubt, but he’s still a rookie being asked to come in without the benefit of the early on-field work you expect rookies to get, make a strong impression on the coaching staff, and nudge aside not one, not two, not three, but four established veterans pushing for the same gig. His road to the starting job will be tougher as a result.

I don’t know if a year starting at guard will make a huge impact on his readiness to take over at center in 2021, but the playing time certainly will be helpful, and the Falcons have already indicated obliquely that they’d like him to win the starting job. It’ll all depend on the strength of the impression he makes in training camp, but I’d be a little surprised if he could pull that off given the obstacles.

James Carpenter

NFL Stats: 114 games, 108 starts; 11 2019 starts, 7 penalties, 4 sacks allowed, 45.3 PFF grade

Carpenter’s argument for the starting job hinges on experience and readiness. He’s started over 100 games in his career, most of them at left guard, and was the team’s chosen option a year ago when he wound up starting 11 games before an injury knocked him out of the rest of the 2019 season. Carpenter is very simply the most established candidate, and in an uncertain year, that’s going to matter more than it usually would.

That doesn’t mean he’s a slam dunk. He’s played in just 21 of a possible 32 games the past two seasons due to injury, and per Pro Football Focus he graded out as the worst lineman on the team in 2019, no mean feat given some of the early year challenges the unit experienced and that Kaleb McGary surrendered 13 sacks on the year. At his absolute best Carpenter has rarely been more than a solid starter who is capable of stretches of great pass protection, and at 31 and coming off two injury-marred, shaky seasons, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest he may no longer be at his best.

If the Falcons want an early season option who knows what to do and won’t be severely impacted by the lack of a true offseason, they’ll likely roll with Carpenter early and make a switch later if (or when) he falters. Given how weird and unsettled this year promises to be, that may very well be the road they take.

Jamon Brown

NFL Stats: 60 games, 47 starts; 4 2019 starts, 6 penalties, 0 sacks, 53.2 PFF grade

If Carpenter’s 2019 tape isn’t inspiring and Hennesssy isn’t ready, Brown becomes a favorite for the gig. He seemed to fall out of favor with the coaching staff in 2019 but never publicly complained about it, and wound up playing a little bit of both guard spots by the end of the year. Brown’s solid in pass protection and can be a mauler in the ground game with his size and strength, but throughout his career those results have been a bit uneven.

Penalties were an issue for him last season, but his blocking was at least decent during most of his appearances in 2019, and he didn’t allow a single sack in 4 starts and 10 overall appearances. If the team is comfortable he can be a bit more disciplined, he ought to get a fair shake at the job, especially considering the team has a lot of money tied up in his contract.

The reality is that the team’s 2019 treatment of Brown, the fact that Chris Lindstrom has the right guard job he was only originally acquired to compete for locked up, and the combination of Hennessy’s promise and Carpenter’s experience is enough to make him seem like a likelier reserve than a starter. I’d welcome Brown getting the gig over Carpenter, but I’m not sure the team feels the same way.

Matt Gono

NFL Stats: 5 games, 57.3 PFF grade

In a world where contracts and draft status were not relevant factors, I firmly believe Gono would’ve gotten a real crack at a starting job sooner. He’s consistently earned praise for his work in practices and preseason and was in the running for right tackle until Kaleb McGary was surprisingly ready for the regular season.

Gono’s nominally in the mix at guard, but I don’t think anyone’s sure whether he’s going to be a strong contender there or a better bet for the swing tackle role, with the next guy on the list potentially serving as his chief competition for that gig. Gono moves well and has looked sharp in pass protection, but color me skeptical this will be the year he gets a real shot given that he has two high-priced veterans and a promising rookie to deal with.

Justin McCray

NFL Stats: 40 games, 17 starts; 4 2019 starts, 4 penalties, 3 sacks allowed, 51.0 PFF grade

McCray was one of the team’s offseason signings, but like Gono, he’s probably a long shot. A run blocker and first and foremost, McCray doesn’t have long experience on the left side and wouldn’t seem to have the pass protection chops based on his career body of work to steal this job given the number of contenders the Falcons have stockpiled.

The Falcons also have undrafted free agents here, but given the fact that rosters might be getting cut down from the usual 90 and the abbreviated offseason, it’d be stunning if any of them got a real crack at this job. Sean Harlow is also here but I expect him to top out as a reserve at center if Hennessy wins the starting job.

Ultimately, I think experience and track record is going to matter a lot more this year than it has in years past, and that the only position group where a rookie is going to emerge as a slam dunk starter is cornerback, where the team’s options are all young and A.J. Terrell is very promising. At left guard, Hennessy may well be able to slide into the starting lineup by midseason, but I just don’t know if he can win the job without the practice reps and, yes, preseason performances that would normally help him do so.

Despite his uneven 2019, then, I’d put Carpenter as the early favorite again for this gig. He’ll need to play a lot better than he did last season to keep it, but as the most established option and a player who has been at least a solid left guard in the past, go ahead and consider him the favorite out of the gate here.

Who do you have winning the job?