Atlanta’s offensive line was not supposed to be a disaster any longer. From left to right, the Falcons sunk a first rounder into left tackle back in 2014, a third rounder into left guard in 2021, a third rounder into center in 2020, and first rounders into right guard and right tackle in 2019. That plus versatile reserve Matt Gono, the fourth round pick the team sunk into Drew Dalman to back up the interior, and the addition of veteran guard Josh Andrews should have been enough to allow this offense some breathing room to operate.
There have been stretches where the pass protection has been quite good, but that’s been few and far between. The ground game has been so bad that the offensive line probably owes Mike Davis a steak dinner at the end of the season. Any way you slice it, the team has tough decisions ahead, because it appears they’ll ride out the year with their current lineup and hope for the best. Going into 2022 with the same strategy and the same five starters seems unlikely given how this year has gone.
This passage, from The Athletic’s Josh Kendall, sums it up as well as I ever could:
Speaking of quarterbacks, no quarterback in the NFL has been hit more times than Ryan (55) this season. The fact he’s been sacked “only” 20 times (which ranks 18th in the league) is a testament to his ability to get rid of the ball more than his line’s ability to protect him. The run blocking hasn’t been any better. Atlanta’s top two running backs, Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson, rank 47th and 43rd, respectively, in yards before contact per rush.
As the team navigates the remaining seven games, they’ll face no shortage of capable pass rushes and run defenses, and the need for improvement is obvious. An offense that wants to run the ball and refuses to stop has to be able to give its backs a modicum of breathing room to work, and an offense with a somewhat limited arsenal needs to give things time to develop. Right now, this line is offering neither.
No matter how well they finish the year, though, the Falcons have decisions to make at almost every spot on this line. Only one of those decisions is a slam dunk, and that’s backing up the money truck for Chris Lindstrom, who has been one of the NFL’s better guards this year.
- As Kendall notes, Matthews has a cap hit of roughly $23.7 million next year and $22.4 million in 2023, so he goes from being an extremely affordable top tackle to an expensive one just in time for his age 30 season. That would not matter if the team was flush with cap space and he was at the peak of his powers, obviously, but that’s not the current situation. If you subscribe to Pro Football Focus rankings, Matthews has been declining the past two seasons, with a bit of a lesser grade in 2020 and a declining one in 2021 that places him in the bottom third of NFL tackles.
If there is real decline here—and if Matthews isn’t going to be an asset as a run blocker, which he’s really not at the moment—the Falcons will take a hard look at his contract and figure out whether he’s a long-term piece of the puzzle or a trade chip.
- Left guard is presumably Jalen Mayfield’s spot for a while yet—we advocated for him to take his lumps at the position and he’s certainly done so—but Atlanta will have to take stock of his largely rough rookie season and decide whether the growth that has taken place over the season and may take place in the future makes him the logical choice there or if he needs competition. I would say he’s not been nearly good enough to go without real competition, and the Falcons will have to think about what that competition looks like, and whether it involves more draft capital, dollars or just Drew Dalman.
- Ditto Matt Hennessy, who has been better than Mayfield but has had some of the most visible moments of being overmatched thus far in 2021. I think the Falcons will be content to roll with Hennessy competing with Drew Dalman—both are young and the coaching staff clearly likes them—but again it’s not a lock that they’ll view Hennessy as their center of the future. The chief question will be whether he can improve his play strength enough to be a consistent force for good as a run blocker.
- Kaleb McGary was expected to receive competition from Matt Gono for the right tackle job, but Gono’s injury wiped out that possibility. Per Pro Football Focus, McGary is in Mayfield territory as one of the bottom ten players at his position in the NFL, but he’s also been a very competent run blocker and has allowed three fewer sacks and committed three fewer penalties than the rookie. The issue for McGary is that he’s not made any sort of leap in his third year in the NFL, and 2022 is the last affordable year of his contract, with the fifth year option or a new deal looming in 2023. The team will need to make a decision on that option—I’d be surprised if they pick it up—and a larger decision about whether to let McGary stick as a starter next year and see how he fares versus having Gono or someone else compete with him.
The Falcons have four young starters from left guard to right tackle, and they may well chalk this year up to growing pains and focus on getting the best out of everyone not named Lindstrom this coming offseason. That’ll be particularly true if the line can move past the nightmarish stretch it is mired in over the final seven games, starting with tomorrow’s tilt against the Jaguars.
I wouldn’t count on that outcome, though. The work on this roster figures to be significant, and particularly if the team’s plans include Matt Ryan under center and an effective rushing attack, they can’t just count on left to right improvement. They’ll pick up Lindstrom’s fifth year option and start moving toward a long-term deal for a stud right guard, but I don’t think you can say with 100% confidence that anybody else is locked in to a role in 2022. What remains to be seen is how much patience and how much faith the Falcons truly have in the group they’ve assembled, but I’d count on at least one new starter on this line next year.