If your offensive line is good enough, you can generally survive having a weaker player at one spot. The Falcons in 2016 had a terrific group at four spots on the line and were able to get by with Chris Chester at right guard as a result, even though Chester was easily the weakest link for that particular line.
Chester had also been a full-time starter for eight years before 2016, including one year with Atlanta, and was a durable and proven player. The Falcons aren’t even close to having the luxury of having one of their guard spots go to someone like Chester, and thanks to an injury to veteran Josh Andrews, they won’t even have their presumed starter at left guard against the Eagles. That job will either go to rookie Jalen Mayfield or recent addition Colby Gossett, with Mayfield’s summer with the team likely getting him first crack at the gig.
Arthur Smith knows roughly how that’s going to go against the Eagles, who boast one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL.
Arthur smith on Jaylen Mayfield possibly starting at left guard week one and facing Fletcher Cox: “Everybody’s gotta get baptized at some point.”— Kris Rhim (@krisrhim1) September 2, 2021
The Falcons have an unproven interior in general, which was going to be a major challenge against Philadelphia whether or not Andrews suited up. Matt Hennessy is entering his first year as a starter and was essentially unchallenged for the starting center job, but we’ve only seen him get significant game action in two games thus far. Mayfield, who spent time at both left guard and right tackle in training camp and preseason, clearly has talent but has looked like someone who is going to need time and refinement before he can be a quality starter or anything close to it. Andrews, who was a part-time starter for the Jets last year and didn’t light the world on fire, was a better option only in the sense that the coaching staff clearly believes he is, and losing him on the cusp of the season is only adding to an entirely fair level of anxiety around the state of the line.
The Eagles are not the most challenging initial opponent the NFL could have lined up—they also have a first year head coach, but like the Falcons, plenty of question marks on the roster—but they’ll be perfectly capable of causing problems for the Falcons offense if the blocking is not up to snuff. In many ways, that makes them exactly the kind of baptism (albeit by fire) that this line probably needs after not really playing together in preseason.
This is a huge opportunity for Mayfield, as well, in that if he can get through some inevitable struggles and show well over the first 3-4 weeks of the season, he could wind up keeping the job even when Andrews returns. That’s a big if, but the ideal scenario for Atlanta is that Mayfield shows enough to be entrusted with a long-term starting spot at guard, settling a position the Falcons have been treating like a turnstile since Andy Levitre left.
We’ll know sometime next week whether Mayfield starts—I’m betting on it—and whether that baptism turns out to be a sprinkling of water on his helmet or a heavy dunking with plenty of flailing. Hope for the former, expect the latter.