We saw heavy investments in this unit this offseason. Will they pay off?
Matt Ryan somehow pulled together a 2018 season that was similar in productivity to his MVP year in 2016. But he did that behind an offensive line that allowed 42 sacks and a whopping 108 quarterback hits.
It didn’t help that Devonta Freeman landed on injured reserve, but the line couldn’t get enough push to get anything going on the ground, either. The Falcons finished the season ranked No. 27 in the NFL with 1,573 yards on the ground.
Both of Atlanta’s starting guards landed on injured reserve, and Ryan Schraeder’s performance declined, leading to the team’s decision to release him following the 2018 season. Now Atlanta has several new faces along the line. Let’s explore how this could play out this season.
Left tackle is fine, and we’ll see about right tackle
On the left side, we’ve got Jake Matthews, who has been quietly reliable throughout his career, and particularly in recent memory. Matthews allowed only two sacks in 2018, and he committed just three penalties. Even with the adjustment of settling in next to someone new at left guard, Matthews should be a steady presence.
On the right side, we’re presuming that Kaleb McGary slides into the role vacated by Ryan Schraeder. The team is clearly high on McGary after trading back into the first round to select him with the 31st overall pick. He may have a bit of a learning curve, and right tackle is underrated in terms of its difficulty. Many defensive coordinators scheme their best pass rushers to go up against the right tackle because it’s a perceived area of weakness. Thinking about any rookie going up against the likes of Von Miller or Khalil Mack terrifies me. Once McGary settles in against NFL speed, hopefully he’ll be able to hold his own.
Center is set
Alex Mack is very, very good, and we have no reason to believe he’ll be anything but that again this season.
Mack actually had a down year last year, though he was still the best run-blocking center in the NFL. Of course, things get more complicated for the center when both starting guards go down to injuries. The key along any offensive line is chemistry, and even a seasoned vet like Mack is going to have some challenges adjusting to new players in both guard spots. Mack will face that same kind of adjustment this offseason, as he settles in next to rookie Chris Lindstrom and probably free agent acquisition James Carpenter. Mack is 32, but considering the consistency of his play, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect more of the same from the veteran center this season.
The guards are the big question mark
My biggest concerns about this unit heading into the 2019 season are the fact that they’ll likely be starting two rookies at a guard spot and right tackle, respectively, and that the Falcons will have three new players adjusting to this particular line and scheme. Two of those will be in the guard roles.
James Carpenter is penciled in for one guard spot, and we can assume that Chris Lindstrom will fill the other. We know what Carpenter is capable of — generally dependable play in both pass protection and run blocking, though he’s had some slips as a full-time starter. We also know that Lindstrom was exceptional in college and has elite athleticism. We just have yet to see how these two mesh with the other three along the offensive line, how they fit into this scheme, and how effective they’ll be in it. Preseason should give us more info, but the guard roles are the ones I’m least confident about heading into 2019.
Overall, the offensive line was a significant area of need, and we can’t fault the Falcons’ efforts to shore it up this offseason. I’m looking forward to getting a look at this unit during training camp so we can start to see how the line is gelling and how the rookies are adapting to the speed of the game. If the chemistry develops, the new players play up to their potential, and if Mack and Matthews don’t lose a step, this unit should be at least moderately improved from last season.