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Jalen Mayfield still first in line at left guard in a crucial second season

There’s still time for a signing to shake things up, but that may not happen until the Falcons get a longer look at their second year guard.

NFL: OCT 24 Falcons at Dolphins Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was easy to be down on Jalen Mayfield last year. One of the worst guards in the NFL, Mayfield regularly let up sacks and was one of the major (if far from the only) reasons the offense ground to a halt so often in 2021. Fans were clamoring to replace him by Week 2, and many were ready to pat the dirt down on his days as a starting guard by season’s end.

It was the mixture of awful games and poorly-aged confidence that drove a lot of it. In further proof that you should never make forward-looking statements on social media, Mayfield declared before the NFL Draft in 2021 that “if you don’t want your quarterback hit, take me.”

With the dust settling on another offseason, though, the Falcons have not brought in legitimate competition for Mayfield at left guard. Maybe Justin Shaffer surprises in year one as a sixth round pick, maybe Elijah Wilkinson proves ready to step in at a position he hasn’t really played before, or maybe it’s Colby Gossett time. None of those things seem particularly likely, though, which leads you to the inevitable conclusion that Mayfield is going to get first crack at the starting job at left guard. I think that’s true even with Arthur Smith indicating the team will bring in trench help ahead of training camp, given that their additions to the line to this point have not exactly been splashes.

The obvious question, for those of us invested in seeing a successful offense, is why things seem to be lining up this way. After all, Mayfield was abysmal in 2021, and he’d have to make major strides just to be a slightly below average starting left guard, which to be clear would be a pretty welcome development in and of itself. To answer that, we have to consider Mayfield’s past 12 months and what he might become, not just the way the season unfolded.

Remember that the Falcons announced Mayfield as a guard when he was drafted, but he didn’t actually focus on that position all summer in 2021. After spending quite a bit of time at guard early on, Mayfield took over at right tackle in late July with Matt Gono and Kaleb McGary both on the physically unable to perform list. His stint there essentially meant he didn’t have a real shot at grabbing the starting left guard job away from Josh Andrews, and the Falcons seemed content with that, given that Mayfield had just 15 college starts under his belt at right tackle coming into the pros. He was 21 years old, and a slow transition into the starting lineup either at some point in 2021 or even in 2022 seemed to be in the cards for an inexperienced player with potential.

We all know what happened next. Josh Andrews broke his hand shortly before the season started, and the team thrust Mayfield into the starting lineup after he had bounced around during the summer and been told he’d be a backup. It went disastrously in the early going in particular—Mayfield did make some small strides late in the year—but even with Colby Gossett on the roster they stuck with him. That was true even when Andrews returned from injury, making it clear the Falcons were committed to getting a long look at Mayfield. Through 16 games—he missed the season finale with a back injury—Mayfield was out there undergoing one hell of a trial by fire. If the Falcons thought he was beyond hope or that the experienced was not building toward a brighter future—if they thought he was not the player they drafted, in other words—it’s doubtful they would have left him out there.

After that 2021, it’s anxiety-inducing to think Mayfield will just waltz into a starting job, but my hunch all along has been that he’ll be the favorite. From the team’s perspective, this is a player they scouted extensively, saw improve (however modestly), and display toughness in a situation they clearly didn’t want or plan to throw him into last year. It’s worth remembering that Mayfield is only 22 years old now, and the general sense when he arrived in Atlanta was that he was somewhat raw but had real potential, as our own Everett Glaze wrote.

Arthur Smith said late in the year that the expectation was that Mayfield would improve in 2022, and nothing the Falcons have done since then contradicts the idea that they’re giving him a real shot at showing he’s done so.

Smith added: “A lot of players, certainly rookies, there’s areas to improve. … If you look at the whole body of work, he’s played decently well. … He’s a young guy. You would think he would have a pretty good jump in Year 2.”

There’s still, I’d stress, plenty of time for things to change. Starting-caliber guards are still out there, including former Titan Quinton Spain, and if after June (or even July and early August) this team feels Mayfield hasn’t progressed the way they’d like, you’ll see a signing. If Elijah Wilkinson, Colby Gossett, Justin Shaffer, and Ryan Neuzil can’t give Mayfield a solid enough push, you’ll probably see a signing regardless. The fact that we’re well into OTAs and Mayfield both doesn’t appear to have a real threat to his job on the roster and hasn’t had the team dip into free agency to snag a potential starter before another team does tells me he’s in the driver’s seat, so his fate is in his own hands.

Mayfield isn’t guaranteed a starting job, and he’s far from guaranteed to improve in his second season. One of this team’s trench signings this summer will almost certainly be a left guard who can credibly step into the starting lineup if something happens to Mayfield or he simply falters. That said, given how tumultuous and difficult year one was, and the team’s evident belief in his upside, no one should be surprised if Atlanta winds up trotting out Jalen Mayfield at left guard again in 2022, and if that happens we’ll all be rooting for him to make that pre-draft promise a reality.