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What should the Falcons do at left guard heading in to Week 2?

Left guard was the biggest question mark on the Falcons offense heading in to the 2021 NFL season, and Jalen Mayfield’s performance in Week 1 has done nothing to quiet concerns. What are Atlanta’s options at the position heading in to a matchup with the Bucs?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I think it’s fair to say that expectations were low for the Atlanta Falcons offensive line heading into a Week 1 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia, after all, had the #2 pass rush in the NFL by pressure rate in 2020 and featured a fearsome interior led by All-Pro Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. Atlanta, on the other hand, was starting two new players on their offensive line: second-year center Matt Hennessy, and rookie third-rounder Jalen Mayfield.

I was fairly confident that Matt Hennessy would hold his own. While he certainly wasn’t good, he was...OK, I guess? Considering the level of competition, I think he played adequately.

On the other hand, expectations for Jalen Mayfield were all over the place—and for good reason. Mayfield was a college right tackle, for starters, so transitioning him to: a) the left side and b) an entirely new position was a bit of a crapshoot. Add to that the fact that Mayfield was thrown around the offensive line throughout camp and the preseason to cover for injuries at tackle, and you have a recipe for a very shaky start.

“Shaky” would be a generous interpretation of Mayfield’s play on Sunday. He was the worst graded player on Atlanta’s offense, per PFF, posting a 28.8 overall grade and a so-low-I-didn’t-think-it-was-possible 1.4 pass blocking grade. He also committed two penalties.

To be fair to Mayfield, he wasn’t disastrous throughout the whole game. Over the first few drives he was solid, and his run blocking in particular was about league average (60.0 run blocking grade). But as the game wore on, the Eagles’ interior line destroyed his confidence and abused him on almost every play. At that point, anyone they lined up across from him was getting home, including rotational players like Hassan Ridgeway and Milton Williams.

It was a total and complete shellacking for Mayfield. The play of the offensive line was so bad that the Falcons offense was limited to quick passing and running the ball. Perhaps, if the game was close, that scheme would’ve worked out OK. But down 2+ scores? It was a recipe for disaster, and the Eagles capitalized.

Mayfield is unfortunately the poster child for this week’s mess, but he wasn’t the only offensive lineman that struggled. Right tackle Kaleb McGary graded out as the third-worst offensive player with a 46.9 overall PFF grade and poor grades as both a pass blocker and run blocker. Hennessy wasn’t much better, with a below-average 52.7 overall grade and an abysmal 20.0 pass block grade. The whole unit needs to get a lot better going forward.

But we’re here to talk about the biggest problem on the offense, and that problem is left guard. This isn’t a surprise for anyone who follows the team: we here at The Falcoholic have been talking about it constantly since former left guard James Carpenter was let go back in March. What is surprising is that the coaching staff seems to have done little-to-nothing about it, aside from adding one of the worst pass blockers in the NFL in Josh Andrews and drafting Mayfield as a project.

Now, I have no issues with drafting a multi-year project to play guard. I liked the Mayfield pick and still think he could end up being a plus starter for Atlanta, perhaps even in the near future. But throwing him to the wolves in Week 1 without even a full training camp to adjust to playing guard is bordering on negligence. If the original plan was Josh Andrews, my thoughts don’t change at all.

We can’t change what’s already done: the Falcons are heading into Week 2’s tilt against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a huge question mark at left guard. So what are the team’s options at this point, with another murderer’s row of interior defensive linemen on the docket on Sunday?

Give Jalen Mayfield more time

This isn’t the answer that most folks will want to hear. Believe me, I sympathize. But in Atlanta’s current situation, letting Mayfield take his lumps and continue to grow is probably the best—and most likely—choice. If Arthur Smith was confident enough in Mayfield to throw him out there in Week 1, he needs to continue to give the rookie chances to improve.

That doesn’t mean that Mayfield shouldn’t ever be benched. But I think he deserves at least a few more chances to show improvement before he gets yanked out of the lineup. If it were up to me, I’d give Mayfield through Week 3 against the Giants to start to settle in. Obviously, the Bucs matchup is brutal and the New York game isn’t much better—he’s got Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams to deal with in that contest. But that’s the schedule, and I think he at least deserves a chance to improve. If he can start to look semi-functional against that level of competition and not have his confidence totally shattered, he’ll have earned more opportunities.

Start Drew Dalman or Colby Gossett

Part of the reason that Mayfield is likely to keep playing, for at least another week or two, is the lack of established veteran competition on the roster. Perhaps Josh Andrews gets a shot when he returns from IR sometime after Week 4. But what about rookie fourth-rounder Drew Dalman and recent waiver-claim Colby Gossett—should we expect them to perform any better?

In Drew Dalman’s case...maybe. The former center from Stanford is Atlanta’s primary interior reserve and looked solid in the preseason. Dalman subbed in briefly for Mayfield in the first half, and looked promising on just 9 snaps. He finished the game with an above-average 69.4 PFF grade (which was 2nd on the team) including a 73.1 pass block grade and an 81.5 run block grade. It was a very limited sample size, but it’s at least encouraging to see. If Mayfield does get pulled this week or next, my guess is it will be for Dalman.

Colby Gossett, on the other hand, is a total wild card. A former sixth-round pick of the Vikings in 2018, Gossett was eventually cut and wound up starting four games for the Cardinals at left guard. Gossett struggled on his nearly 300 snaps, with 5 sacks allowed and 4 penalties en route to a 46.0 overall PFF grade. Since then he hasn’t managed to find his way back on to an NFL field—but he did opt out of the 2020 NFL season. Who knows what to expect from Gossett, but I doubt he gets a chance before Dalman.

Sign a free agent or trade for a veteran

If the Falcons want a substantial, immediate upgrade at left guard, the only route is adding outside help. Whether that’s through free agency or a trade, that’s going to be the only option to inject significant talent into this position. I still can’t understand why the team hasn’t signed or looked into former Saints C/G Nick Easton. But all 32 NFL teams have elected to pass on Easton, so perhaps there’s something going on there that isn’t public knowledge.

An option via trade could be Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who was rumored to be available this offseason and didn’t play in Week 1 against the Browns. Duvernay-Tardif opted out of the 2020 season to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic—he is a doctor—and the Chiefs seem to have moved on. The issue here could be two-fold: for one, Duvernay-Tardif will have a $2.75M cap hit. While that’s not huge, Atlanta is down to just $3.5M in cap space—so Duvernay-Tardif’s addition would wipe almost all of that out. Second, the Falcons have shown a pretty big reluctance to trade away any draft resources for players. I wouldn’t expect Duvernay-Tardif to require more than a mid-Day 3 pick, but it’s worth noting.

Both Easton and Duvernay-Tardif would be immediate, season-long upgrades for Atlanta that would help out the offensive line in a big way. But are Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot willing to pull the trigger on a move so soon? I’m doubtful, but things could change quickly if we see another disastrous performance against Tampa Bay.

What are your thoughts on the Atlanta’s options at left guard, Falcons fans?