Everyone is talking about Peter Konz, the Atlanta Falcons 2012 second-round pick as the man who will be playing center long term. However, the man who will start for the Falcons in 2012 is Joe Hawley, the fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft.
Few know about the unheralded Hawley.
He's one of those guys on the offensive line that every coach loves. He's tough, gritty and one of the more intelligent center/guards in the NFL. Hawley has also proven as one of the guys that the Falcons can't keep off the field. In his first two years, he has played in 31 out of 32 games and started 12 out of 16 in 2011 and the playoff game in New York at either center or guard (via NFL.com).
Hawley also played 941 out of a potential 1,212 snaps in the offense in 2012. Hawley is starting to remind fans of a younger Todd McClure, the Falcons long-time starter at center.
McClure was someone who didn't play a game his rookie year but developed into someone that couldn't be kept off the field in the 2000 season and hasn't been off the field since outside of four games missed due to injury.
With McClure already 35 years old and in his likely final season in the NFL, he will be competing for his job with Hawley. Hawley, a 23-year-old with game experience, has the potential to end up in the Pro Bowl if he continues on his current track. Pat Yasinskas of ESPN has noted that in 2012:
I’d look for the depth chart to change, especially on the offensive line and at middle linebacker, as the Falcons get into training camp and the preseason. I really think the Falcons would like to start Joe Hawley at center, rookie Peter Konz at guard and second-year pro Akeem Dent at middle linebacker.
When the coaching staff has new coordinators come in, players are evaluated much differently and much more equally. Dirk Koetter came into the Falcons to take over the offense and brought with him Pat Hill to take over the offensive line.
Hill's motto of "Play Hard" is something that Hawley embodies and with the new screen game brought in by Koetter, the athleticism of the 6'3" 300-pound center will be an advantage over McClure.
Another thing to look at between Hawley and McClure is that this is the first time they will be given a true competition.
Prior to 2012, Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey had handed the job to McClure as he was the long-term leader of the offensive line. However, with a new scheme, a changup of guard might be needed.
With Hawley will come better pass protection from the center position, as he allowed just three combined pressures in his four games starting. And with second-round pick Peter Konz and 2007 second-round pick Justin Blalock flanking him on both sides, Hawley should see an improvement in the push created around him for the running game.
Blogging Dirty's Greg Huseth brings up a point about John Clayton's Theory of 150 saying the Falcons in 2011 were too close to the 150 point to be effective. The Theory of 150 states that the total age of the offensive line should not exceed 150, and once it does, it is on the verge of a long-term meltdown.
The Falcons—should they start Hawley (23), Konz (23) and eventually Holmes (23) to go with Clabo (30) and Blalock (28)—will be at least 23 combined years under the 150-point. This means they should have at least four seasons to keep the line together until they would have to replace a key cog or two.
When people held the Falcons 2010 offensive line in high esteem, it was because they had three years of chemistry already built up. It's time to re-start that chemistry for the long term and the best way to do that is to start Hawley in the 2012 season.
Hawley will be the long-term best fit for the Falcons at center, and he has been groomed for two years to take over for the center spot. It makes too much sense to have him earn the job in the 2012 season and take over right away as the long-term leader in the middle of the offensive line.