We continue our roster review series by looking at the men who shaped the interior of Atlanta’s offensive line in 2020 — the guards.
The Falcons came into the season after a trying 2019 when it came to this specific position group. There weren’t any changes made along the starting offensive line unit coming into this campaign, indicating that the decision makers thought it a worthy gamble to bet on continuity and organic improvement.
To their credit, the offensive line as a whole — and the guards in particular — improved and were far from the reason for the team’s failures.
Chris Lindstrom and James Carpenter were reunited on either side of center Alex Mack for the second consecutive season as starters. Lindstrom was a first round pick in 2019 and was looking to make a jump in year two of his NFL journey, while Carpenter was a 2019 free agent signing looking to bounce back following a disastrous showing that season.
Justin McCary was brought in as someone who provided positional versatility, with the ability to play any position along the offensive line, and ended up as the team’s primary swing guard following the departure of Jamon Brown in training camp and the shuffling of Matt Gono into the swing tackle role. McCray got a fair share of snaps in his role this year.
Here is their performance review from this past season.
RG Chris Lindstrom
2019 Stats: 16 games, 1,122 snaps, 4 sacks allowed, 7 QB hits allowed, 1 total penalty, 77.2 Pro Football Focus Grade (70.3 Pass Blocking; 76.7 Run Blocking)
Contract: 3 years remaining, 5th year option for 2023
This is exactly what we wanted to see out of Lindstrom in year 2, after he was robbed of the majority of his rookie season by a foot injury. Not only did the Boston College alum play nearly every snap in 2020, but he improved his PFF grades across the board and was both an above average pass blocker and run blocker. He was Atlanta’s highest graded offensive lineman, second-highest graded pass blocker and highest graded run blocker.
Looking at his performance from a league wide perspective, Lindstrom graded out in the top 10 among all guards who played at least 50% of their team’s snaps in both overall PFF grade and run blocking grade, while registering in the top 20 in pass blocking grade. He was the complete package in his sophomore campaign.
The sky is the limit for Chris Lindstrom, who has begun justifying his number 14 overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. Another jump in year 3 (which is expected) would make him one of the best guards in the NFL, as he has the makings of a stabilizing anchor along the interior of the offensive line for years to come.
LG James Carpenter
2019 Stats: 13 games, 826 snaps, 3 sacks allowed, 5 QB hits allowed, 0 penalties, 56.1 Pro Football Focus Grade (61.9 Pass Blocking; 51.6 Run Blocking)
Contract: 2 years remaining; potential out this offseason
Due to the structure of his contract, the Falcons had no choice but to stick with Carpenter and hope for a bounce back this year, after he had the worst season of his career in 2019.
To his credit, Carpenter delivered on those expectations, indicating that 2019 (45.3 PFF grade) was more of an anomaly than a trip off the cliff as his 2020 grade was far more in line with what we saw from him in 2017 (59.3 PFF grade) and 2018 (58.5 PFF grade). He was also better across the board this season.
The Falcons were fortunate that Carpenter ended up being an ok left guard and that he wasn’t a disaster, but they may look to part with him this offseason to gain some cap relief. Cutting him would save the team $4.09 million in space, and up to $5.25 if it’s designated as a post-June 1 cut. If the team opts to keep Carpenter, they would do so at an expense of $6.46 million in cap hit. That seems a bit rich for a below average player on the wrong side of 30 and on the clear downswing of his career.
LG Justin McCray
2019 Stats: 5 games, 156 snaps, 3 sacks allowed, 2 QB hits allowed, 1 total penalty, 54.8 Pro Football Focus Grade (40.0 Pass Blocking; 60.5 Run Blocking)
Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
McCray was brought in as a depth piece who was to be utilized in case of injury; and he was subsequently called into action when Carpenter had to miss some time.
While the overall grade indicates a solid showing, McCray’s pass blocking (which was his biggest area of concern coming into this season) was disastrous — ranking as the 15th-worst pass blocking grade among all guards in the NFL in 2020. He was a very solid run blocker to somewhat make up for it, but in the modern NFL pass blocking is a far more valuable skill to have.
The Falcons may look to bring McCray back for depth purposes due to his positional versatility and experience, but I would be holding my breath for Matt Ryan’s sake whenever he drops back to pass if he had McCray blocking for him for an extended period of snaps.
Outlook - Uncertain, with the need to be addressed
Chris Lindstrom is a foundational piece, but beyond him there are more questions than answers when it comes to this position group. Carpenter will more than likely be a cap casualty and there’s no competent swing guard under contract.
Left guard is the only real question mark as far as the starting offensive line unit is concerned going into 2021 (provided that Carpenter is indeed cut). The new general manager will have to either spend a Day 2 draft pick on one (who can start immediately), sign one in free agency, or roll the dice on Carpenter putting together another competent season at the expense of over $6 million.
As far as swing guard is concerned, a Day 3 draft pick or cheap free agent signing will suffice in bringing in the necessary competition for a Training Camp battle. That signing could once again be McCray.