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Will Kaleb McGary’s rookie year trial by fire help in 2020?

The second-year tackle had a rough go of it his rookie season, but won’t have to face quite so many outstanding pass rushes on paper in 2020.

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Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Despite not playing in many games a year ago, Chris Lindstrom is getting the benefit of the doubt from Falcons fans, myself very much included. The second-year guard played very well in his limited opportunities in 2019 and has evident talent that makes most of us think he’ll soon be one of the NFC’s better guards. His fellow first round pick, starting right tackle Kaleb McGary, hasn’t engendered quite the same warm and fuzzy feelings to this point.

That’s a product of a few different things. While Lindstrom was considered one of—if not the—very best guards in last year’s rookie class, not everyone was as sold on McGary. Unlike Lindstrom, McGary also got to play a lot, piling up the 5th-most snaps in the NFL at right tackle. Pro Football Focus gave him only a 53.0 for the 2019 season, a reflection of how bumpy things were for the rookie tackle, particularly in pass protection (he allowed 13 sacks), which convinced more than a few Falcons fans that He’s A Bust (TM).

As is always the case, though, one year does not a career make. The same PFF that gave him a mediocre grade for his rookie season is bullish on his second year outlook thanks to his slate of opponents in 2019 versus this year.

That 68th percentile doesn’t sound hugely encouraging, but the upshot here is that McGary faced an above average slate of pass rushers, owing to the team playing 6 of the top 10 pass rushers by sack totals and 4 of the top 5 last year. That pitted McGary against guys like Cam Jordan (who he was legitimately impressive against at points) throughout the year, meaning he really did get a trial by fire in Year 1.

It’s hard to project how things are going to go with the pass rushes on the slate, but on paper they’re weaker and the matchups McGary will be facing are weaker too. The combination of a year of (sometimes rough) experience, a healthy Lindstrom next to him, and weaker opposition might very well give McGary the kind of second year leap we saw from Jake Matthews on the left side back in 2015. That’s not to suggest that McGary doesn’t have a lot to prove—you don’t surrender 13 sacks in a season by accident—but it’s far too early to write him off.