Our review of the offensive line reaches its conclusion with the centers — a position that the Falcons have thankfully had no issues with since 2016, after it was previously one of the team’s biggest question marks in years prior.
The reason for that stabilization, of course, was the 2016 free agent signing and subsequent heroic play of the great Alex Mack, who was a Pro Bowl selection in the first three seasons of his 5-year contract with Atlanta. While not a Pro Bowler in year 4, he was still the team’s best lineman not named Jake Matthews last season.
Mack went into the final year of his contract this season, as the Falcons started making plans for the post-Alex Mack era at center when they drafted Matt Hennessy in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Let’s review the performance of Atlanta’s centers this past season:
2019 Stats: 14 games, 972 snaps, 1 sack allowed, 7 QB hits allowed, 3 total penalties, 65.7 Pro Football Focus Grade (55.9 Pass Blocking; 70.0 Run Blocking)
Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
Father time came for Alex Mack in 2020, and the result was the worst PFF graded season of his career, along with his pass blocking performance falling off a cliff (his previous lowest pass blocking grade was 75.2, in 2015).
Despite the fact, Mack was still Atlanta’s third-highest graded offensive lineman and the 16-highest graded center in football among players who were on the field for 50% of their team’s snaps. Even in his worst season, the University of California, Berkeley alum was still a very solid center.
Mack’s time with the Falcons, and in the NFL, will have come to a close if he decides to hang up the cleats after a wonderful 12-year career, where he was utterly elite through much of it.
2019 Stats: 9 games, 225 snaps, 1 sack allowed, 4 QB hits allowed, 4 total penalties, 47.0 Pro Football Focus Grade (28.6 Pass Blocking [yikes]; 59.9 Run Blocking)
Contract: 3 years remaining
Hennessy’s first season in the NFL was a struggle, especially when he was asked to fill in for James Carpenter at the left guard spot at times this season. It got to a point where he was completely removed from that role after 75 snaps and once again struggled when he had to fill the vacated center spot following a late season concussion suffered by Mack.
I can’t sugarcoat how bad Hennessy’s pass blocking was this season. San Francisco’s Hroniss Grasu was the only center who played 200+ snaps who had a lower pass blocking grade than Atlanta’s third-round draft selection.
Obviously, rookies struggle in the NFL. If Hennessy does take over the starting center role next season (which is expected), Atlanta will need to see significant improvement. If Hennessy can provide similar production to what we saw from Alex Mack this season we should be elated.
Outlook - Questionable
The center position is no longer the beacon of stability that it’s been over the past five years, as the Falcons have legitimate questions about it for the first time since 2015.
Atlanta will need to see a significant improvement from Hennessy in the pass blocking department if he’s going to be the new starter. There’s a possibility that the team could bring Mack back on a one-year contract if they aren’t comfortable with handing the reins over just yet, but that would still bring about concern given the drop-off in Mack’s play in 2020.
My speculative guess would be that Hennessy is given the keys to the position moving forward. In such a case, the team would also need to cover its bases by bringing in someone who can play emergency snaps at the position as a backup. Given his familiarity with the team, and versatility to be able to play every position along the offensive line, Justin McCray could be that player.