We’re not that far away from training camp, which means it’s an excellent time to look at the state of some of the biggest position battles on the roster. Today we look at what promises to be one of the most competitive battles during camp this year — the battle for the starting center position.
The Falcons continue trying to replace Alex Mack at the center position, as they have been since the All-Pro left the team in free agency in last year’s offseason.
Atlanta never spent a premium draft pick (which I define as a first or second round selection) on a center, but they did invest multiple years of draft capital into the position — selecting Matt Hennessy in the third round in 2020 and then Drew Dalman in the fourth round in 2021.
After not selecting anyone to play the position in 2022, and not bringing anyone in free agency to feasibly competing for the starting spot, we’re set to see a good ol’ fashioned one-on-one training camp competition for the right to control the middle of Atlanta’s offensive line.
The recent history at center
Other than a rough three year stretch in the middle of the 2010s, the Falcons have been blessed to possess two stalwarts at the center position for the better part of two combined decades.
Todd McClure was a diamond in the rough selection in the seventh round of the 1999 NFL Draft. Following a torn ACL which cost him his entire rookie season, McClure took over the starting center position in the middle of the 2000 campaign and never looked back. From 2001-2012 McClure was a calming presence in the middle of the offensive line for the Birds, starting 188 out of a possible 191 regular season games over that time period and generally faring very well.
The Falcons entered the wilderness for three seasons following Mud Duck’s retirement, predominantly starting Peter Konz, James Stone, Joe Hawley and Mike Person, to some understandably very poor results between 2013-2015.
The center position was such a point of frustration in those post-McClure years that it convinced General Manager Thomas Dimitroff to do something bold in the 2016 offseason, which was targeting and landing a very expensive and very high profile free agent in Alex Mack — the team’s biggest FA signing since Michael Turner eight years earlier.
Mack paid dividends, playing out his entire five-year, $45 million contract that the Falcons bestowed upon him in 2016. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons in Atlanta and was a key figure in unlocking the most potent offense in the NFL in 2016, which led the Birds to the Super Bowl.
Following Mack’s departure in 2021, Matt Hennessy started all 17 games in that subsequent season.
There are two players who are vying for this job. Both very young, neither very proven, and each looking for his opportunity to really take the reins of a starting spot on an NFL roster.
Hennessy was selected in 2020 to be groomed as the team’s center of the future, backing up Alex Mack and playing some guard in his rookie season. He hasn’t quite been able to get the kind of a strong hold on the position that the Falcons would have hoped he would by now. Following some first year struggles, Hennessy did start all 17 games in 2021, but there’s a reason why he’s set to be in a competition during this year’s training ,camp, as opposed to having the starting spot locked down going into 2022.
The PFF grade that Hennessy registered last year was overall more than solid — a 77.1 overall mark in over 900 snaps is something most teams would take from any of their offensive lineman, and it was even a higher grade than what Alex Mack had in a Pro Bowl season for the San Francisco 49ers (70.4).
However, if we delve deeper into that grade we see a glaring issue. Hennessy’s overall marked was propped up by his absolutely elite 89.1 run blocking grade, which was third in the league among centers who played at least 20% of their team snaps, and behind only Jason Kelce and Creed Humphrey. He was one of the few Falcons’ offensive linemen to deliver in that regard.
The pass blocking is where we saw some serious deficiencies. Hennessy registered a poor 50.5 pass blocking grade, which ranked him 34th out of 41 eligible centers. He led all centers in QB hurries allowed and spent 632 out of his 988 snaps in pass protection, highlighting how much his poor pass blocking outweighed his great run blocking.
Hennessy always had issues going against stronger defensive tackles, as his strength hasn’t been up to par with his contemporaries around the league at his position. He has all of the potential to become a very good long term center for the Falcons, but an offseason spent getting stronger and refining his technique in pass protection is imperative.
Drew Dalman had an incredible RAS (Relative Athletic Score) of 9.9 during the pre-draft process, showcasing that he possesses the athletic tools to succeed and possibly thrive at the NFL level. That was the primary catalyst in convincing Terry Fontenot to invest a high Day 3 pick on him in the 2021 draft.
Dalman didn’t get much run in his inaugural NFL season, playing just 68 total snaps, but his performance was an even more exaggerated version of what we saw from Hennessy (albeit on a much lower sample size).
Dalman was second among all NFL centers in PFF run blocking grade with an absolutely elite mark of 92.3. Conversely, he was 60th out of 64 centers with a 40.9 pass blocking grade.
Dalman certainly showed encouraging flashes in his rookie year, but his NFL career won’t amount to much if he continues getting overwhelmed in the pass blocking portion of the game. He has a chance to make his mark and legitimately compete for a starting role in Atlanta if he can showcase that he’s made improvement in that area of his game during the offseason.
Who wins the battle?
Given his greater overall NFL experience and slightly higher draft pedigree, I think Matt Hennessy lines up as the team’s starter come Week 1.
This isn’t to say that he’ll have a long leash to work with by any means. The coaching staff started Hennessy in all 17 games last year despite his pass blocking struggles, but part of that had to with the fact that Dalman was a rookie who was relatively raw coming out of college and another part was that the Stanford product exhibited the same struggles as Hennessy when he was called upon.
Hennessy should have an early season grasp of this job, which he will safely keep if he plays well, but it’s a grasp which will get more and more loose with Dalman waiting in the wing if the incumbent struggles. If Atlanta can’t get at least a solid starting center out of this duo this year, expect it to be a free agency and draft priority in 2023.