For many Falcons approaching free agency in 2024, like Jaylinn Hawkins, the path to a starting job a rocky and possibly impossible one. For others, like Mack Hollins, a starting job feels like a done deal. Then there are players like Matt Hennessy, who exist somewhere in the middle.
Hennessy is one of two known contenders for the starting job at left guard, the other being promising rookie Matthew Bergeron. That means the role is not guaranteed for Hennessy, an impending 2024 free agent, but the opportunity exists if he can hold off the highly-touted rookie.
That makes 2023 a pivotal year for Hennessy, who is virtually guaranteed a roster spot but will go into free agency either fresh off a starting campaign at left guard or having played a crucial but smaller role as a versatile reserve. Let’s look at why this year is important for Hennessy and what realistic expectations should be for the veteran offensive lineman.
What can Hennessy bring to the table?
As either a solid starter or a versatile reserve, Hennessy is a player the Falcons will likely end up leaning on at some point in the 2023 season. If he wins the left guard role, he’ll hold it until he scuffles or (hopefully not) gets hurt. If he doesn’t, he’ll be the first man up behind Matthew Bergeron, likely behind Drew Dalman, and potentially even behind Chris Lindstrom. That’s a critical role for a team that will be heavily reliant on its offensive line to pave the way for a strong ground game and keep Desmond Ridder upright.
In three games and two starts in 2022, Hennessy allowed a pair of sacks and committed three penalties, blemishes on otherwise solid work. His work as a run blocker has been good-to-stellar in each of the past two seasons, but the pass protection and penalty issues have held him back somewhat at both guard and center. Entering his fourth NFL season and with a full offseason spent working at left guard, Hennessy should be able to improve a bit further, and he still looked like at least an average starting guard out there in his limited 2022 opportunities.
That plus the experience and ability at center in a pinch if Drew Dalman falters or is injured make him an absolute roster lock for a Falcons team that needs the reliability and versatility. At worst, Hennessy is a great emergency option.
What are the stakes?
For the Falcons, Hennessy being terrific opens the door to easing Matthew Bergeron into a starting role. If that’s a desired outcome as the Falcons push to contend this year, then it’s a big deal if he has a solid summer and runs away with the job, providing strong work between Jake Matthew and Drew Dalman. If the team is neutral on that outcome or would like to see Bergeron get the job, Hennessy projects to be quality depth. Given the likelihood that you’re going to have some kind of short-term ailment on the interior of this line in 2023, his ability to step in and play well will be absolutely critical in that scenario. If he can’t for any reason, this team is in huge trouble.
For Hennessy himself, there’s a lot of money to be made. If he starts most of the 2023 season at left guard and acquits himself well, the Falcons will likely plug Bergeron in next year and let Hennessy walk in free agency. Two full-time years of starting experience at left guard and center paired with pretty solid work, especially as a run blocker, should get Hennessy a long look in the market from teams looking to replace a starter on the interior. If he’s just a quality reserve with versatility, Hennessy should get a solid contract here or elsewhere as a player who can start in a pinch, but there’s no question that shining as a starter in 2023 will help him find a quality contract in 2024.
Hennessy winning the left guard job isn’t my expected outcome, but it’s a realistic enough one if Bergeron isn’t stellar in camp. You’ll recall that Hennessy beat Dalman in camp in 2021 for the center job and the team thought enough of him to cross-train him and throw him into the fire at left guard when Elijah Wilkinson went down last year, so he is a legitimate contender and not just an afterthought for Atlanta. The fact that he’s running with the first team right now means he has an opportunity to keep that leg up on Bergeron.
Still, I do expect the rookie to win, given that he’s the future and potentially an elite run-blocking guard right out of the gate. The most realistic outcome in my mind is Hennessy sticking in the role he was solid in a year ago: A key reserve on the interior who can step in and provide competence when the team needs it. Having lived through the past five years of Falcons football, when an injury sometimes meant catastrophe, that’s not something anyone should be turning their nose up at.
If Hennessy remains a versatile and solid piece of the puzzle along the offensive line, whether he starts or not, the Falcons will benefit greatly. With a chronic need for quality offensive linemen around the league, good work as a starter, a reserve, or both ought to help Hennessy land a quality second contract, here or elsewhere.