The Falcons have had a messy left guard situation ever since 2018, when Andy Levitre got hurt, Wes Schweitzer started the rest of the games at the position, and Atlanta decided they never wanted to do that again. Thanks to injury, ineffectiveness and so forth, the Falcons have played Schweitzer, James Carpenter, Justin McCray, Matt Hennessy, and Matt Gono there at different times over the past couple of seasons, and it remains a trouble spot heading into 2021.
Right now, the only guard options under contract are Carpenter and Hennessy. The former is an obvious candidate to be a cap casualty, given that Atlanta can save $3.9 million against $2.4 million in dead money by cutting him, and the latter is currently the leading candidate to start at center. That’s not really going to cut it, but Atlanta doesn’t exactly have a ton of money right now to go out and sign a big name starter, either.
Here are the options for Atlanta, some of which can be smoothly blended together like chocolate and peanut butter.
Roll on with James Carpenter
This one is a bet that you have the pieces all along your offensive line to absorb 10-15 games of so-so play from an experienced veteran. Carpenter’s 2019 was abysmal and saw him start just 11 games before getting injured and putting up the worst Pro Football Focus grade of any starting offensive lineman, which the eye test suggested was warranted. He rebounded somewhat in 2020 to play decent football all year, surrender just 3 sacks, and play in 13 games, but you know roughly what you’re getting from the big man at this point. The last time Carpenter appeared in 16 games was 2017, he remains solid enough in pass protection but not great as a run blocker, and you can live with that just fine if he’s healthy and the rest of your line is quite good.
It’s not an inspiring option, especially given Carpenter’s $6.4 million cap charge, but you’re not going to get a good starter at left guard for significantly less than that. The new regime might roll on with Carpenter for one more year and pick up the $5.2 million in savings for what we all hope will be a fruitful 2022 offseason.
Hand the keys to Matt Hennessy or Matt Gono
The Falcons can re-sign restricted free agent Matt Gono pretty easily, with a second round tender ensuring they keep him. If they’re not sold on Hennessy as a starter at center, they could pit him against Gono for a combined price of something like $4.4 million and let the loser play a key reserve role. That’s a more affordable option and offers more potential upside than moving ahead with Carpenter—plus you get the savings from cutting ties with him—but could backfire and lead to the left guard position actually being worse.
Part of that is just not knowing how either player will perform. Hennessy was not spectacular in limited opportunities at left guard and center last year, and while improvement seems likely it is not at all a given. Gono has been borderline excellent at times at tackle when he’s been pressed into action, but he’s been closer to average with a few cringeworthy moments when he’s started at guard. Either one could be far better this year.
The palatability of this option depends on how you feel about Gono, Hennessy, or both, and their chances of being able to lock down the position for a whole season. Personally, as much as I love Gono and am high on Hennessy’s potential, it’d feel like a risk.
Draft a long-term starter
In many ways, the most cost-effective and sound option, but it depends on nailing a pick and comes with short-term concerns. The Falcons may be forced to turn to one of Gono, Hennessy, or a veteran free agent signing if their pick isn’t up to the task in year one.
The home run swing here would be adding Penei Sewell at #4, if the board lines up that way, and letting him lock down the left guard position in year one before eventually making the move to tackle. Rashawn Slater from Northwestern, Alijah Vera-Tucker from USC, Trey Smith from Tennessee and Wyatt Davis from Ohio State would be other options, with Slater and Vera-Tucker potentially going as early as the top 10-20 picks and Smith and Davis going between late round one and the late second round. The Falcons could of course dig deeper if they have a player they love, but cutting Carpenter and pushing to address the need via the draft means you have to get somebody you feel comfortable starting this year.
Sewell feels like the closest thing to a sure bet in this class. Atlanta may otherwise need to mix this approach with the Gono/Hennessy competition or the next item on this list to ensure they’re covered at the position in 2021.
Sign a new free agent starter or competition
If you draft someone and plan to utilize Gono and/or Hennessy at left guard, you can probably get away with a veteran like Justin McCray who has starting experience but would only need to be a starter of last resort. If you’re not willing to go the draft path and the new brain trust wants to burn down left guard and start over—not an approach we’d disagree with—you can start thinking about how you allocate your free agent dollars once you clear cap space.
Our own Kevin Knight and Aaron Freeman at FalcFans are among the Falcons analysts stumping hard for Patriots guard Joe Thuney, the crown jewel of the free agent class at the guard position. A Thuney signing would lock down the position for the next 2-3 years at minimum, albeit at a great cost, and would allow the Falcons to bring Hennessy along at center knowing he’s surrounded on all sides by good-to-great linemen. That would be the luxury option, and it would probably preclude the Falcons from doing much of anything else in free agency, so as much as I’d like to see it I can’t say I think it’s likely.
Someone like the recently-released Nick Easton, who Terry Fontenot would’ve had a key role in signing to New Orleans in the first place, might be a cleaner fit. Easton’s a solid starter who has played guard and center in the past and could fill in at either position, making him a logical fit if Atlanta’s not planning to draft a guard. J.R. Sweezy, John Miller, and Jermaine Eluemenor are all experienced starters who could take care of the position for a year at a semi-reasonable cost while Atlanta either punts the need for a year or brings a rookie along slowly.
The team’s immediate need for cap space in the short term leads me to believe that they’ll likely part ways with Carpenter, potentially signing someone like Easton to assume the pole position for the starting job at a slightly cheaper price. With Jake Matthews locked in at left tackle, Hennessy a candidate at center, and Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary entering the third year of what could be five year deals, though, it makes sense for the Falcons to try to find a long-term starter at the position through the draft. If they don’t look Sewell’s way early on, expect the Falcons to sink a Day 2 or Day 3 pick in a potential starter of the future who will be able to push for a job in year one.