We’ve reached the conclusion of the offensive line portion of our 2021 positional season review.
The Atlanta Falcons moved into the post-Alex Mack era with some mixed results. Mack, of course, left the Falcons in free agency to reunite with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, and he had a very solid season as was expected. It was a season which was more in line with what we saw from him in 2020 and 2019 with the Falcons (meaning that of a solid starter) as opposed to those younger days of 2016 and 2017, when he was in the stratosphere of the elites.
Mack’s replacement, who was groomed as such in 2020, was former third round draft selection Matt Hennessy. We saw some rough outings from the Temple alum, but there was plenty of promise mixed in as well. He was joined at the position by rookie fourth round draft pick Drew Dalman, who was used sparingly.
This is their individual evaluation of the 2021 season.
C Matt Hennessy
2021 Stats: 17 games played, 988 snaps, 3 sacks allowed, 1 QB hit allowed, 5 total penalties, 77.1 Pro Football Focus Grade (50.5 Pass Blocking; 89.1 Run Blocking)
Contract: 2 years remaining
Matt Hennessy actually performed very favorably, according to PFF’s metrics, in his first year as Atlanta’s full time starting center. He actually even scored a higher overall grade than the departed Alex Mack (70.4).
The main catalyst for Hennessy’s favorable marks was his efficiency in run blocking — among all centers who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps, the Temple alum was PFF’s third-highest graded run blocker, behind only Jason Kelce and Creed Humphrey. He was absolutely elite in that facet of the game.
The main issue with Hennessy, however, was the other side of life as an offensive lineman — the pass protection. While he was third in run blocking, Hennessy was 34th out of 41 eligible centers who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps in pass blocking grade. He allowed the most quarterback hurries out of any center in the NFL. Pass protection is more important than run blocking in today’s NFL, and Hennessy spent 632 snaps in pass protection against just 356 snaps in blocking for his running backs.
With some improvement in pass protection, even if it’s just to average levels by an NFL center’s standards, Hennessy can become a very solid long-term starting option at the center position. He will be one of the players I am most intrigued by at training camp and in the preseason this coming year.
If Hennessy comes into the next campaign with a renewed vigor as a pass blocker, he will be the team’s third “plus” starter on the offensive line, alongside Chris Lindstrom and Jake Matthews. If not, he may be replaced.
C Drew Dalman
2021 Stats: 5 games played, 68 snaps, 0 sacks allowed, 1 QB hit allowed, 2 total penalties, 78.3 Pro Football Focus Grade (40.9 Pass Blocking; 92.3 Run Blocking)
Take everything I just said about Matt Hennessy — about being very good in run blocking but a struggling pass blocker — drastically lower the sample size and exaggerate that discrepancy even more, and you will have what Drew Dalman was in his rookie season.
Dalman did not have enough snaps to qualify for the 20% snaps criteria, but among centers who played any amount of snaps in 2021, Dalman was second to only Creed Humphrey in PFF run blocking grade. Conversely, he was 60th out of 64 eligible centers in pass blocking grade. It’s not encouraging that Dalman had his worst performance in pass protection in the game where played his season high in snaps (Week 13 against the Bucs).
Just like Hennessy, it’s imperative that Dalman improves his pass protection in the coming offseason. If so, he could have a solid future with this franchise and may even be in the competition for the starting left guard spot, or swing guard spot, as early as next season. However, I assume that the coaching staff sees him as a long-term center, especially if Hennessy falters.
Outlook — Encouraging
Matt Hennessy still has a ways to go before the fanbase and the franchise can be fully confident in him as the starting center, but the flashes have been there. The Falcons will need him to improve his pass blocking immediately, but at just the age of 24 and with only one year of starting experience in the NFL, it’s fair to assume that Hennessy has not yet hit his ceiling, or even come close.
Dalman will also be looked at to improve his pass blocking. If he can do so, he will provide valuable depth along the interior of the offensive line as soon as next season. If both he and Hennessy improve in that department and prove to be worthy starting caliber players, then that will be a wonderful problem to have for the Falcons.