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Falcons training camp battles: Right tackle

Kaleb McGary was given some serious competition during free agency.

Atlanta Falcons v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

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 the battle for the starting right tackle spot, headlined by two main contenders.

The right tackle position will be an intriguing one to watch during this upcoming training camp period. Up until last year, it was a given that Kaleb McGary would continue to get penciled into that starting roster spot, given his draft pedigree. After his only feasible competitor for the starting job in Matt Gono missed the entire 2021 season with an injury, that continued to be the case.

While McGary was never put into a competition with his job on the line in 2021, there’s a reason why there were some rumblings and even outright calls from the fanbase for Matt Gono (before his injury) to be given a legitimate shot at earning the starting right tackle role. McGary hasn’t been what the Falcons had hoped he would become after they traded back into the first round in the 2019 draft to select him.

Following another inconsistent season where he didn’t have any pressure on his grip for the starting right tackle role, the Falcons brought in some legitimate competition for McGary when they signed Germain Ifedi in early April. The pressure kicked up a notch when the Falcons then opted to decline McGary’s fifth-year option less than a month later, although that seemed like a given at this point.

Now we have a one on one competition to see who will win the right to protect the right side of the line for Marcus Mariota/Desmond Ridder, with both the incumbent and the challenger possessing years of NFL starting experience and with both being former 31st overall picks in the NFL Draft.

The recent history at right tackle

Much like the center position we looked at recently, the right tackle spot has for the most part been a position of consistency for the Falcons dating back to the Mike Vick era . It hasn’t quite showcased the talented or legendary figures that we’ve seen at center over that same time period, however.

Atlanta found an offensive line staple for Vick’s era when they signed Todd Weiner in free agency ahead of the 2002 season. Weiner started 78 out of 80 games between 2002-2006, and did an admirable job covering Vick’s blind side. Remember, Vick was a lefty, making right tackle a more important job on the Atlanta Falcons than anywhere else in the league.

He helped pave the way for the Falcons’ famous DVD ground game that totaled 2,368 rushing yards in his first year in Atlanta. After injuries slowed him down in 2007, Weiner came back for one more season, as Matt Ryan’s left tackle in 2008, before he rode off into the sunset.

Undrafted free agent Tyson Clabo spent a couple of seasons bouncing between various practice squads, and even had a stint in NFL Europe, before catching on with the Falcons in 2005. Clabo played the majority of 2006 as the team’s starting right guard before transitioning into the team’s starting right tackle role in 2007 following Weiner’s injury troubles. From there his career took off, and he become a lynchpin of Atlanta’s offensive line from 2008-2012, starting all 80 games at right tackle in that time period. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2010 and was then named a member of Atlanta’s All-Decade team for the 2010s.

Following Clabo’s departure, the team had a rough 2013 with Jeremy Trueblood serving as the primary starting right tackle and some movement at the position. That was a short-lived change, however, as they struck gold with another undrafted free agent in Ryan Schrader, who won the starting job in the 2014 season and never looked back. Between 2014-2018, Schrader started 69 out of a possible 80 games, was named a PFF First-Team-All Pro selection in 2015 and helped lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2016.

Weiner, Clabo and Schrader each had a five-year stretch where they dominated snaps at right tackle, showcasing how favorable the position has been for the Falcons the past two decades. That especially true given the fact that the team didn’t spend a single draft pick for the services of any of these solid contributors.

Atlanta did use a draft pick in 2019, and a premium one at that, on Kaleb McGary hoping that he could mimic some of this success that these three previous right tackles had with the team. McGary has thus far started 45 out of a possible 49 games at right tackle for the Birds over the past three seasons since being drafted.

The contenders

It’s a two horse race for this starting job in Atlanta, with both candidates having known for months now that they would be in this competition.

Kaleb McGary

Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Kaleb McGary has his helmet off in between action in a road game. Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

In an ideal world, Kaleb McGary would have lived up to his first round draft pedigree and posed an imposing tandem on the right side of Atlanta’s offensive line for years to come. He would have been a stalwart alongside fellow first rounder from the 2019 draft Chris Lindstrom, who is locked in at the team’s starting right guard position.

In that ideal world, right tackle would be checked off as a position the Falcons don’t have to worry about in the long term, much like how right guard is. McGary would have had his fifth-year option picked up and this article would have never been written. Instead, however, we sit here with the battle for right tackle promising to be one of the most intense in Training Camp.

The reason why we have that competition is because McGary has been nothing but inconsistent in his three years as a Falcon. Following an absolute disaster of a rookie season, where he surrendered the most sacks in the NFL, the University of Washington product hasn’t taken the second and third year strides expected from a first round pick, even if he’s had flashes along the way.

It’s a shame because he has developed into a really solid run blocker, but that was completely overshadowed by his horrendous performance in pass protection in 2021. Among the 55 tackles who played at least 50% of their teams snaps, McGary finished ranked 51st in PFF pass blocking score. He allowed the fourth-most sacks in the NFL among all offensive lineman.

The flashes have been there for McGary in the form of some dominant games, but maddeningly, he’s never been able to string those types of games together. His abilities in pass protection regressing back to where they were in his disastrous rookie season was likely the final straw for the front office, opening their eyes to the fact that they can’t just give McGary the starting right tackle job with no resistance again.

This is a contract year for Kaleb McGary. He has a chance to really earn some money in free agency with a great season, but he’ll need to put those maddening inconsistencies from his first three seasons behind him to land that next big contract from the Falcons or another team. He’ll also finally need to overcome some legitimate internal competition for his starting job for the first time in his career in the form of:

Germain Ifedi

Chicago Bears v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Enter the challenger. Brought in during Atlanta’s offseason movement to corner the market on former Chicago Bears (likely under the influence of former Bears GM turned Falcons senior personnel executive Ryan Pace), Germain Ifedi is a legitimate contender to usurp Kaleb McGary at the starting right tackle position.

Ifedi had an absolutely grotesque rookie year himself, in Seattle, after being selected in the first round of the 2016 draft — his PFF pass blocking grade was the second-worst in the entire NFL among all offensive lineman that year.

Originally drafted as a right guard, he was quickly converted to right tackle. Following that conversation and an offseason of hard work, Ifedi made incredible strides in pass protection, though his run blocking — which was actually solid in 2016 — completely tapered off.

Following four years in Seattle where he never lived up to the draft expectations, Ifedi was scooped up by the Bears. He split time at right guard and right tackle in 2020, playing 1,066 total snaps of okay football in terms of both pass protection and run blocking.

Exclusively used as a right tackle in 2021, Ifedi graded out as an above average pass blocker and slightly below average road grader in the ground game, before a knee injury landed him on injured reserve in mid-October.

A major weakness in Ifedi’s game, at least in Seattle, was an abundance of penalties. He had double digit penalties in each of his final three seasons in Seattle and led the league in 2017 with a whopping 19 flags against him. In 1,478 combined snaps as a Chicago Bear in 2020 and 2021, however, he committed just nine penalties, which was at least a major improvement in comparison.

Now in Atlanta, Ifedi was likely promised a legitimate and fair opportunity at winning the starting gig. At the very least, that’s what he has earned with his career performance thus far. The former first rounder has started in all but two games, which he hasn’t missed due to injury, in his career. He’s also been very durable, save for last season’s knee injury, missing just four games in his career before 2021, and just one game since his rookie season.

This isn’t just a lip service competition that we sometimes see in Training Camps around the league, where the head coach preaches competition without any intention of actually challenging the incumbent at a specific position. There may legitimately not be a single position on Atlanta’s roster more up for grabs than right tackle.

Who wins the battle?

At his very core, Germain Ifedi represents a very solid and around league average option at right guard/tackle, whom you can more than trust in pass protection. Kaleb McGary has always had the expectation of surpassing the level that Ifedi is at today, but he hasn’t even achieved that level up to this point.

While McGary is a better run blocker than his competitor, based on what each did in 2021, his deficiencies in pass protection have served as an Achilles heal. For comparison’s sake, look at the stats and see that McGary has thus far played 1,954 career pass blocking snaps and allowed 26 sacks along with 32 QB hits. Ifedi, meanwhile, has served as a pass protector for 3,370 career snaps and allowed 25 sacks along with 18 QB hits. Both of those marks are fewer than McGary’s in nearly 1,400 more snaps.

While the discrepancy in number of career snaps would suggest that McGary at the very least currently has youth on his side (having played for three seasons vs. Ifedi’s six), that’s not quite the case. Because of his entry into the NFL as a 24-year-old rookie, McGary is less than a year younger than his primary competition at right tackle.

My bold prediction (if we can call it that) is that Germain Ifedi will win this competition, on account of his superior pass blocking, and continue his career as a starter at his third destination and seventh NFL season. McGary will be relegated to the swing tackle position but will get an opportunity to reclaim that starting job if Ifedi struggles out of the gate. Regardless of who wins, the Falcons will be hoping for better than they had a year ago.