The Atlanta Falcons have excellent talent on the offensive line. They need to give their young players a chance to prove themselves first, though.
Atlanta is coming off of a season in which it has improved the offensive line quite a bit by basically doing nothing. It also has key free agents coming into the 2013 season in Sam Baker, Garrett Reynolds and the should-be-retiring Todd McClure.
They also have a great group of young talent that hasn't been proven yet in Lamar Holmes, Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson and Peter Konz. Add them to a pair of veterans in Justin Blalock and Tyson Clabo, and the Falcons have the makings of a very deep offensive line.
In doing the audit of the Falcons line, a couple of things stood out to me. The first is that while the Falcons as a whole allowed 27 sacks, 48 hits and 139 hurries over the 18 games they played, the line only allowed 22 sacks, 44 hits and 122 hurries.
Per game, that was just 1.22 sacks, 2.44 hits and 6.78 hurries that the offensive line allowed. Considering that was on 780 pass blocking snaps, the offensive line did very well in terms of the pressure allowed.
With just one sack every 35.45 snaps, one hit every 17.73 snaps and then one pressure every 6.39 snaps, the Falcons improved from 2011 where they had one sack every 32.86 snaps, one hit every 17.63 snaps. However, they only had one pressure every 7.77 snaps.
The Falcons earned a -10.7 composite run blocking grade by PFF on their offensive line. That was better than 2011's -14.4 composite run blocking grade by almost four full points. However, it still stacks the Falcons towards the bottom of the pack in run blocking.
In 2013, the Falcons will have to improve their run blocking and allow less pressure on Matt Ryan. If they can do this, they should be able to push through that final wall into the Super Bowl.
In looking over the talent at the offensive line, here's what the Falcons should look at this offseason when evaluating:
This one is interesting. The Falcons have three players they can rely on here. Sam Baker is the five-year starter. Will Svitek is the wily veteran backup and Lamar Holmes is the young player who is raw but has the most potential.
Baker and Svitek are both unrestricted free agents who they should try and bring back. Lamar Holmes is the only one of the three currently under contract and is guaranteed a spot on the roster at his salary.
Svitek had a season-ending injury in 2012, but in 2011, he allowed just three sacks, eight hits and 20 hurries on 472 pass blocking snaps. He also earned an average grade in both pass blocking and run blocking by ProFootballFocus.
Who should start at Left Tackle?
Sam Baker was solid in his return from injuries in 2012. He allowed six sacks, nine hits and 37 hurries on 780 pass blocking snaps. He also was below average in run blocking, but earned the best pass blocking grade of his five-year career at plus-7.2.
Lamar Holmes is mainly a potential player. He is 6'6", 335 pounds. He has quick feet and excellent strength. He has a top-notch kick step in pass protection, but needs to learn how to use his long arms to his advantage more. Also, he needs to improve his run blocking.
But as a whole, he's got the most potential to be a top-tier left tackle out of any of the three guys in the group and should be given a shot to start. If it were up to me, I would start Lamar Holmes and bring back Will Svitek for depth at left tackle.
Center and Right Guard
The interior of the Falcons' offensive line—specifically at center and right guard—was the weak link in the running game in 2012. The combination of Todd McClure, Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz was mediocre for most of the season.
Todd McClure is a free agent and the longtime veteran on the line. Unfortunately, his play took a giant step back this past season, and he should have been benched. The five sacks and five hits he allowed were the most he's allowed in the Mike Smith era.
Which center and right guard combo would you go with?
Garrett Reynolds had his best year for the Falcons in pass protection. His run blocking was average too. However, he's a free agent as well and could be signed by the Panthers for their starting role without having to compete for it like he would have to in Atlanta.
Peter Konz is guaranteed a starting spot in 2013. He will play either center or right guard—wherever the Falcons decide he is a better fit based on the personnel around him. He was solid in 2012, but had rookie moments against Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh.
Joe Hawley is the dark horse. He can play both center and right guard as well. The best plan of action to me would be to give Hawley and Konz the starting roles. Have Hawley play center and Konz play right guard.
This would give the Falcons a young, talented interior. If they also had Holmes start at left tackle, they would be able to build chemistry as an overall line for the long-term as Holmes and Konz are just 24 and Hawley is 25.
Left Guard and Right Tackle
Atlanta has the benefit of having a pair of players under contract through at least 2015 that are worth their salt. Justin Blalock and Tyson Clabo are able to lock down the left guard and right tackle positions long-term and shouldn't be replaced til their games start to fall off.
Blalock may not be great as a run blocker, but he's an excellent pass blocker and has graded out positively for years at the spot. Tyson Clabo is great all around. However, his pass blocking will slip for a game or two every year.
Atlanta has a great benefit in that both of these players have been with the team since 2008, and can keep them the next three years each. With these two anchoring the Falcons line, they will have a shot to be better next season.
For depth, the Falcons have Mike Johnson at right tackle, and he has proven his worth as both a right tackle backup and a sixth offensive lineman this past season. At backup guard, the Falcons have multiple guys who will compete for the spot in Harland Gunn, Phillipkeith Manley and Jacques McClendon.
Competition breeds success, and the Falcons will use this to their advantage and take whoever wins this particular competition for their depth guy in 2013 at both guard spots.
The overall competition and talent on Atlanta's offensive line should give them one of the better units in the NFL in 2014. Giving them another year under Pat Hill will only help their performance and allow the young big bodies to finally show an impact in Atlanta.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, NFL and NFL Draft. He is also the Falcons analyst at Drafttek, runs the NFL Draft Website ScarDraft.com and hosts Kvetching Draftniks Radio.