A line full of question marks.
The Falcons have rebuilt their offense on the fly this offseason. Calvin Ridley, Matt Ryan, Mike Davis, Russell Gage, and Hayden Hurst are all gone—Ridley could be back next year after his suspension, but I have my doubts—and they’ve been replaced with draft picks and free agents. The skill positions are going to look very different in 2022, with Kyle Pitts, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Olamide Zaccheaus being among the few familiar faces.
The offensive line, however, is mostly the same as it was a year ago. The Falcons have added legitimate competition at one spot, but they’re largely betting on the same group that struggled mightily a year ago to deliver better days. Arthur Smith has talked repeatedly about the team avoiding obvious passing situations in 2022, but the reality is that Atlanta’s largely depending on growth. That’s going to look genius if Jalen Mayfield, Matt Hennessy, and Kaleb McGary take steps forward, and it’s going to be a long year if they do not.
That said, there’s still competitions to be won here and depth roles to determine, even if the five starters wind up being the same as they were in 2021. Let’s look at where the line stands after the 2022 NFL Draft.
Left tackle: Jake Matthews
The longest-tenured offensive lineman on the team, Matthews has been as steady as they come. He hasn’t missed a regular season game since his rookie season in 2014, and only 20 players in franchise history have played more games for the Falcons than he has. Matthews has gotten here not just by being durable, but being the team’s most reliable pass protector and a solid enough run blocker.
With a new contract in place, Matthews should lock down the left side for at least the next handful of seasons, and he’ll head into camp as the team’s best or second-best starter and rock-solid protection for Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridders’ respective blindsides. It’s nice to have someone you can count on.
Left guard: Jalen Mayfield
This team put Mayfield through hell in 2021, and in turn Mayfield put Matt Ryan through hell. He was one of the worst starting offensive linemen in football by virtually any metric you want to use, whether it was the eye test or Pro Football Focus, and there was no drastic improvement in the offing late in the year to make you feel like Mayfield is going to take a huge step forward.
For all that, the Falcons clearly have big expectations for Mayfield. Their only competition for him is Colby Gossett, who didn’t beat him out a year ago, a sixth-round rookie in Georgia’s Justin Shaffer, and a pair of veterans in Elijah Wilkinson and Germain Ifedi who have never to my knowledge played left guard in the regular season in the pros. Unless they add another signing like Nick Easton or Quinton Spain with significant left guard experience, you should expect Mayfield to go into the summer as the favorite for the job, and I have him penciled in as the starter.
Why? Mayfield’s physicality and mental toughness are things Arthur Smith has continually praised, and the team knows that they threw him into the fire a year ago after having him shift from right tackle to left guard basically on the fly last summer. He’s still just 21 years old and may well take an ugly year’s worth of experience and turn it into something better, and I think the Falcons really do feel like they put him in a bad situation and Mayfield’s absolute worst is behind him. Whether he can be more than a below average starter is what remains to be seen, but if he isn’t you’ll see this team push him with Shaffer and add more pieces heading into 2023 at the latest.
Center: Matt Hennessy
Today, I’m not sure any starter is on more uncertain footing than Hennessy. The Falcons specifically drafted Drew Dalman to push him and even rotated Dalman in at times in 2021, though they abandoned that when the rookie struggled mightily in pass protection. Still, it’s obvious that Hennessy and Dalman will be a legitimate camp competition in a way it wasn’t last summer, when Hennessy walked away with the job without much of a struggle.
Why? Hennessy routinely graded out well with Pro Football Focus and had some great weeks where he showcased his polished technique and some great run blocking, but he was also shoved around at the point of attack quite frequently. You’d expect some improvement after Hennessy also hung in there and played all last season, though.
The bigger issue for Hennessy is that he’s squaring off against a player the Falcons coaching staff appears to like a lot. Dalman was a draft pick for the new regime, and I think it’s beyond telling that they rotated him in at center a year ago, even if that was a short-lived and somewhat ill-fated experiment. If Dalman’s made real strides, I expect him to give Hennessy all he can handle, but I’d be comfortable with the third-year pro starting again in 2022 if he’s improved and Mayfield’s improved next to him.
Right guard: Chris Lindstrom
The other locked-in starter, Lindstrom has been mostly terrific the past couple of seasons. He put together the finest season of his career in 2021 despite the chaos around him, and the Falcons gladly picked up his fifth-year option for 2023 given how well he’s played and how young he is.
I’d expect even better from Lindstrom going forward, but there’s really not much to say about what he offers this team. He’s a damn good guard, he won’t be challenged for the starting job, and so long as he’s healthy Lindstrom will be a player the team relies on.
Right tackle: Kaleb McGary
McGary is the other player who appears to have real competition for his job. The Falcons brought aboard Germain Ifedi, an experienced starter who has played a lot of right tackle over the years, and did not pick up McGary’s fifth-year option. That makes this a critical summer for McGary, who will certainly want to deliver his best season yet to earn a big deal, whether it’s from the Falcons or another team.
The big question for McGary is simply whether he can improve his pass protection and consistency. A solid-to-very good run blocker at right tackle, he has had his adventures in protecting the quarterback to this point in his career, allowing 26 sacks over the past three seasons, including 13 his rookie year and nine a year ago. He’s had some terrific games over the past three seasons, including stonewalling Cameron Jordan, but it’s putting it all together and routinely delivering those kinds of efforts that’s going to earn him a significant long-term contract. The best shape of his life stories are already kicking up for McGary, and hopefully he’ll run away with the starting job and morph into the tackle the Falcons thought they were drafting in the first round back in 2019.
Tackle/guard Germain Ifedi
McGary’s competition, though Arthur Smith mentioned him while talking about Jalen Mayfield at left guard, a position Ifedi hasn’t really played in the pros. Regardless, he has a clear path to a roster spot even if he doesn’t win the starting job at either of those positions, as he’s a seasoned player with a history starting at both right guard and right tackle.
I wouldn’t rule out Ifedi simply beating out McGary, though he’s hardly a slam dunk to do so. Ifedi’s pass protection has been better than McGary’s to this point in their respective careers, but he’s been something of a penalty machine throughout his NFL career and has been the weaker run blocker. Given that McGary has no ties to the current regime and Ifedi does—he was a Chicago Bear signing by Ryan Pace, naturally—and that the duo are the same age, I expect this to be perhaps the roster’s most intense competition for a starting job.
If Ifedi doesn’t win the job outright—and if he doesn’t factor in at left guard, where I’m not really expecting him to compete at this point—it’ll be interesting to see if he’s considered the team’s swing tackle or if he’ll slot in as McGary and Lindstrom’s top backup. That would have implications for…
Tackle/guard Elijah Wilkinson
It’s not quite clear where Wilkinson is going to be competing just yet, but at first blush he’d be factoring in at the same two spots Ifedi will be expected to compete at. The difference is that it would be a surprise if Wilkinson was considered a real contender to start at right tackle, but there is the possibility that the team will try him at left guard to go head-to-head with Jalen Mayfield.
That possibility would seem to be his clearest path to a roster spot, as if he shows he can factor in on the left side of the line he’d hope to either vault Mayfield or shove one of Colby Gossett or Justin Shaffer off the roster to hold down a reserve role. I’m fully expecting Mayfield to take that job, meaning Wilkinson’s likely battling for a reserve role with Ifedi, Shaffer, and Gossett.
Wilkinson had a pretty disastrous 2019 season as a more-or-less full-time starter in Denver, allowing 10 sacks and piling up nine penalties that year as the team’s right tackle. He’s sandwiched that with more solid work as a reserve and fill-in starter in Denver and Chicago, and like Ifedi he has experience playing both right guard and right tackle.
With a good summer and perhaps a longer look on the left side of the line for the first time in his career, though, he might stick around as a versatile and experienced reserve.
Center/guard Drew Dalman
Dalman is the other player with a real shot at unseating a starter. The 2021 fourth round pick was a player the Falcons clearly liked a lot, but Hennessy cruised to the starting center job last summer. With a year under his belt, the team will be hoping Dalman pushes harder for a role this year.
The Falcons did rotate Dalman in during the season, and he mostly looked solid in both pass and run blocking during his very limited stint. The problem was that he also was penalized twice and had a pair of botched snaps, which ended the center rotation experiment before it really got started. If those issues prove to be hiccups rather than features with Dalman, he has the technical ability and all-around skillset to take the starting job away from Hennessy, even if I’d give his more veteran counterpart an early leg up in the competition.
Guard/tackle Colby Gossett
A familiar face for offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford, Gossett filled in admirably for Mayfield at the very end of the season and has some positional versatility, as he’s talked about being comfortable at both guard and tackle. His familiarity with Ledford, solid all-around body of work, and ability to credibly fill in at multiple spots should give him an early leg up on a roster spot this summer. If it comes down to him or Wilkinson, I’d personally give him the edge.
Guard Justin Shaffer
I saw more than a few enthusiastic Dawg fans predicting Shaffer would unseat Mayfield, and while you can never say never, I don’t think that’s happening in 2022. Shaffer brings run-blocking nastiness and strength, as well as experience at left guard for a tremendous program in Georgia, and there’s enough upside here to think he won’t top out as a reserve in the NFL.
His pass protection needs work, however, which is one of the reasons he fell to the sixth round. The team saw enough to draft him and will look to tap into his real upside over the long haul. Shaffer will be worth watching this summer and should make the roster, but chances are his ceiling to start the season will be Mayfield’s direct backup.
Practice squad/final roster spot competition
Tackle Rick Leonard
I keep forgetting that Leonard is on the roster, which is not intended as a slight. Still just 25 years old and a former fourth round selection for the Saints when Terry Fontenot was still in New Orleans, Leonard is strong and quick-footed but was considered a project entering the NFL as a converted defensive lineman and hasn’t found his way on the field for significant snaps to this point in his career. Perhaps this is the year he puts it together and pushes for a major role, but if not, he may have a leg up on filling the Willie Beavers memorial role as the practice squad tackle in 2022.
Guard Ryan Neuzil
Neuzil’s low on this list, but he’s one of the more intriguing players competing for a roster spot this summer. Neuzil is an impressively nasty blocker who looked good in preseason last year and was able to parlay that into a year-long stint on the practice squad.
With a year under his belt, Neuzil should be in a better position to push for a roster spot, even if Gossett, Shaffer, Wilkinson, and Ifedi would all seem to be in favorable positions for roles in 2022. If he simply outshines Gossett, Wilkinson, or Shaffer, I take the coaching staff at their word that the best man will win, and Neuzil’s talent and upside are legitimate. At worst, he should be in the driver’s seat for another stint on the practice squad.
Tackle Tyler Vrabel
The son of Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, the younger Vrabel was a fine starter for Boston College, one who drew praise for his toughness and looked very promising when he wasn’t dealing with injuries. If he fares well in the coming months, he may latch on to a practice squad as a project at tackle, something the Falcons can use given that only Jake Matthews is under contract next year at the position group.
??? Leroy Watson
Interestingly, Watson is listed as an offensive lineman on the team’s roster. He spent his college career at UTSA as a tight end, but he was always better known for his blocking than his pass catching acumen. If this is accurate, the Falcons may envision Watson spending a year on the practice squad bulking up if they like his summer and factoring in as an interesting reserve down the line. We’ll see what comes of this, but Watson was a very good blocking tight end, and hopefully that translates with the shift.
There are so many questions for this offensive line outside of Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom. Will Jalen Mayfield earn the starting job again, and if so, will he improve? Will Matt Hennessy or Drew Dalman man center? Will Kaleb McGary or Germain Ifedi roll into the season as the starter at right tackle? How much improvement will we see from this line, or will the Falcons be shifting heavily to a run-first attack that hides their weaknesses in pass protection? It still feels like the line has the potential to lift or sink this offense in 2022, depending on competitions shake out and the candidates for starting jobs actually fare when the season starts.
We’re going to see all of this play out over the summer, but this is a crucial year for Atlanta, which is going to have the cap space necessary to solve some of their line needs via the magic of money should multiple starters falter. The best case scenario is that Mayfield and one of Hennessy or Dalman blossoms into a quality starter this year, giving the team affordable starters under contract at least through 2023, and they either bring back McGary or add a right tackle with upside. The worst case scenario is that McGary and Ifedi both struggle on the right side, Mayfield wilts and Shaffer doesn’t seem ready for primetime, and the Hennessy/Dalman competition doesn’t bear fruit. If that happens, we may see a significant overhaul of this line, because Atlanta’s not going to let ongoing struggles there submarine a critical 2023 season.
For now, all we can do is wait, see, and hope. The team’s apparent faith in their incumbents and budget additions will need to pay off for this offense to take a step forward after a shaky 2021.