We begin our review of Atlanta’s offensive line from this past season by evaluating how the guards fared in opening up running lanes and stifling pressure regarding the passing game, from the interior.
After a 2020 season where the guards were actually fairly solid for the Falcons, the position group took a noticeable step back, despite the continued improvement and maturation of Chris Lindstrom as a linchpin of the unit.
Lindstrom helped anchor the right side of the offensive line following the leap he made in his sophomore campaign in 2020. He was joined by rookie Jalen Mayfield as his counterpart, at left guard. Mayfield, who had spent his collegiate career mostly playing right tackle before being asked to transition to left guard in his rookie season as a professional. Colby Gossett, who was signed a few days before the start of the regular season, spelled them as the team’s primary swing guard, with rookie Drew Dalman also mixing in.
This is the individual evaluation of Atlanta’s guards in the 2021 season.
RG Chris Lindstrom
2021 Stats: 17 games, 1,034 snaps, 0 sacks allowed, 8 QB hits allowed, 2 total penalties, 84.1 Pro Football Focus Grade (65.3 Pass Blocking; 88.2 Run Blocking)
Contract: 2 years remaining, 5th year option for 2023
Chris Lindstrom has progressed exactly the way the Falcons had hoped he would after selecting him with the 14th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s steadily improved each season and has now become one of the best guards in the NFL.
While Lindstrom was graded as a slightly worse pass blocker in year three in comparison to last season, he took a leap as a run blocker and became one of the best in the NFL at helping pave the way for the run game. Among all players who played at least 50% of their team’s snaps in 2021, Lindstrom was graded as the sixth-best guard in the NFL and the fifth-best run blocker at the position. It’s quite honestly a travesty that he wasn’t named to his first Pro Bowl this season.
Lindstrom is also the only guard in the NFL to play in all 17 games and not allow a single sack of his quarterback. The man out of Boston College looks like he will anchor Atlanta’s offensive line for the next decade. In year three, he has already claimed the torch from Jake Matthews as the team’s best offensive lineman.
LG Jalen Mayfield
2021 Stats: 16 games, 989 snaps, 11 sacks allowed, 21 QB hits allowed, 9 total penalties, 49.3 Pro Football Focus Grade (27.6 Pass Blocking Grade, 67.0 Run Blocking Grade)
Contract: 3 years remaining
As good as Lindstrom was at the guard position for the Falcons in 2021, Jalen Mayfield was an absolute dumpster fire. As the answer to the team’s decision to create a hole at the left guard position with the release of James Carpenter, Mayfield was a significant downgrade from Carpenter as a pass blocker, and that overshadowed the upgrade he provide in run blocking.
Out of 90 players in the NFL who lined up at the guard position for at least 20% of their team’s snaps in 2021, Mayfield gave up by far the most sacks (second place was fellow rookie Alex Leatherwood, who gave up three fewer sacks) and he was responsible for getting his quarterback to get hit more times than anyone else. Mayfield’s pass blocking grade was the third-worst among all guards who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps, and the worst among those played at least 50%. If the old saying is true that you’re only as strong as your weakest link, then the Falcons were weaker than anybody else in the NFL from a pass blocking standpoint in 2021.
There is some hope in that Mayfield’s three worst games all came in the first quarter of the season, when he was really thrown into the flames to play what was a bit of a new position for him. However, his performance was still well below average even after Week 4, and the last game he played in, against Buffalo, saw him register a horrendous pass blocking grade of 8.0. Mayfield’s run blocking was overall very solid, but none of that matters in today’s NFL if you can’t protect the quarterback.
Mayfield will be on the roster as a left guard once against next season, and the Falcons presumably will give him the first crack at the job if he shows he’s made offseason progress. However, it would be downright irresponsible if the front office doesn’t bring in either an outright upgrade at the position, or at the very least someone who will be part of a legitimate competition.
G Colby Gossett
2021 Stats: 6 games, 74 snaps, 1 sack allowed, 3 QB hits allowed, 0 total penalties, 65.3 Pro Football Focus Grade (45.7 Pass Blocking Grade, 70.3 Run Blocking Grade)
Contract: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Gossett didn’t play much, seeing the vast majority of his snaps in the season finale where he started at left guard in place of the injured Mayfield, but he was by no means detrimental to the team in his limited playing time.
While he was graded out as a much better run blocker than pass blocker for the season as a whole, in that final game he started against New Orleans he was actually stronger and much more solid in pass protection with a 65.7 grade. He also had an elite 12 snaps against the Cowboys where he registered a 92.0 overall grade, but that was of course a small sample size.
Overall, Gossett was a decent signing for someone who was brought in right before the season started, after being one of Cleveland’s final cuts. The Falcons will have the option to bring him back on a cheap deal in 2022, due to his status as an exclusive rights free agent. Whether or not they do, he won’t be a needle mover for this offensive line.
Outlook - Just as uncertain as last year
When I wrote this article last year, I said that the position outlook was uncertain with a big question at left guard still needing to be addressed. At the time, the team had the option of rolling the dice with Carpenter at a $6 million cap hit or spending a Day 2 on someone who could come in and start right away. The team went with the latter option, but I don’t think they expected Mayfield to be this bad. They also likely didn’t expect to have to throw him in the fire at all with Josh Andrews on the roster.
One year later, and the position group is in the same spot as it was last year. Lindstrom is anchoring the right side of the position, but left guard remains a massive question mark and swing guard may also need to be addressed if the team wants to bring in an upgrade over Gossett.
The last thing Terry Fontenot needed was to once again have to spend resources on the guard position after doing so last year — especially with many holes still needing to be plugged on this roster — but he may not have a choice if the Falcons want to maximize what’s left of Matt Ryan’s career. They could ignore the position and bank on Mayfield growing into a competent starter, but it would be an incredible risk to go into this season expecting that outcome without a Plan B.