The Falcons came into the 2020 season with questions that had to be answered along the offensive line.
There isn’t a single position group on this team that has had more draft capital invested into its starters than the tackles — Jake Matthews was the 6th overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft and Kaleb McGary was a first rounder himself, in the 2019 NFL Draft, for whom the Falcons also sacrificed a third rounder in a trade up. As a result, expectations are high on this duo, as they should be given the investment.
Swing tackle Matt Gono is on the opposite end of the draft investment spectrum, signing on as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and finally getting his opportunity to really contribute as an inexpensive depth piece this season.
As far as pass blocking, and in particular sacks allowed, goes, Matt Ryan was kept upright more often this season than he was last year. He was brought down 41 times despite a league high 626 pass attempts in 2020, against 48 total sacks along with 616 pass attempts in 2019.
Let’s get into each tackle on this team individually, reviewing all of their performances in 2020.
LT Jake Matthews
2019 Stats: 16 games, 1,113 snaps, 3 sacks allowed, 6 QB hits allowed, 3 total penalties, 75.5 Pro Football Focus grade (84.0 Pass Blocking; 57.4 Run Blocking)
Contract: Locked up through 2023
The son of hall of famer Bruce Matthews is cultivating his own impressive career, and he continues to be a steady and calming force along Atlanta’s offensive line. He has graded out as the team’s best offensive lineman (according to PFF) for the second consecutive season.
The run blocking is certainly an area of concern, as Matthews ranked 47th among all tackles in run blocking grade (of those who played a minimum 50% of a team’s snaps), but pass blocking is where a modern day lineman makes his bread, and there were few better at that than the Texas A&M alum. Matthews graded out as (by far) the team’s best pass blocker, and was 9th among all tackles in the NFL (min. 50% of snaps played).
What’s more impressive is that this was actually the lowest Matthews has been graded since 2016, showcasing just how consistent he has been. Franchise left tackles are hard to come by, especially those durable enough to play 1,000+ snaps per season (something Matthews has done every year outside of his rookie season in 2014), but the Falcons have one on their roster. Jake Matthews continues justifying the large contract extension he was given in 2018.
RT Kaleb McGary
2019 Stats: 14 games, 890 snaps, 4 sacks allowed, 9 QB hits allowed, 1 total penalty, 64.1 Pro Football Focus grade (58.2 Pass Blocking; 66.0 Run Blocking)
Contract: 2 year remaining, 5th year option in 2023
It was a case of good news, bad news as far as Kaleb McGary’s 2020 is concerned. The good news — he improved on every single statistic from his disastrous 2019 rookie season (not that that was a high bar to exceed). What was particularly encouraging was that the number of sacks he was responsible for dropped from a league high 13 to 4, and he only committed one penalty all year. There was significant improvement across the board.
The bad news is that there’s still a long way to go, particularly when it comes to pass blocking. While a solid run blocker, McGary ranked 52nd among all tackles to who played at least 50% of their team’s snaps in pass blocking grade. That needs to improve drastically to begin justifying the draft capital Atlanta invested in him to help stabilize the right side of the offensive line.
The Falcons will hope and expect that McGary can make that third year jump that we see from young tackles. If he can, then Atlanta will have one of the more impressive tackle duos in the NFL. Either way, he’s locked into that starting right tackle role for at least two more years.
T Matt Gono
2019 Stats: 15 games, 335 snaps, 1 sack allowed, 5 QB hits allowed, 0 penalties, 54.4 Pro Football Focus grade (45.6 Pass Blocking; 58.7 Run Blocking)
Contract: Restricted Free Agent
Gono got his opportunity to make a real contribution as the team’s primary swing tackle, even starting two games at RT in the absence of McGary, and he was ok in the role. The former UDFA ended up being a slight upgrade over Ty Sambrailo in 2019, and he did so while performing for a fraction of the cost (earning $752,500 this season).
Gono’s positional versatility along with Atlanta’s expected salary cap constraints in 2020 (the team has the fewest players on its roster in the NFL going into the offseason, despite those constraints) make it a no-brainer to re-sign the Wesley alum.
The team could certainly do worse at swing tackle than Gono, and if he manages to improve his pass blocking in what would be his second year of real play in 2021 it would make him an even more valuable depth piece.
T John Wetzel
2019 Stats: 2 games, 18 snaps, 59.3 Pro Football Focus grade (80.5 Pass Blocking; 55.5 Run Blocking)
Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
Death, taxes, the Falcons re-signing and cutting John Wetzel over and over again like some football version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” It’ll be interesting to see if the new regime has the same affinity for those actions as the old one did.
To his credit, Wetzel looked like a really good pass blocker in his (very) limited snaps in 2018. I assume the Falcons will be interested in bringing him back to their practice squad as a depth piece in 2021.
This is one of the units I’m least worried about moving forward. Jake Matthews is a steady anchor who’s one of the best at protecting a quarterback’s blindside and I saw enough improvement from Kaleb McGary to be hopeful about his outlook going into year three. Both starting tackles will likely be here for another 3+ years.
Matt Gono is a solid swing tackle who can very easily be brought back given his status as a restricted free agent. He should also steadily improve next season. Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn may have parted ways with the team unceremoniously, but they left behind a good foundation along the offensive line for the next regime to work with.