Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank has made it clear that he intends to bring back general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith next season, but that doesn't mean the Falcons won't undergo any serious changes this offseason.
Atlanta's offensive line has taken its share of criticism this year because of the constant pressure that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has faced and the lack of production Atlanta has gotten from its run game.
Given the nearly $105 million that Blank has invested in Ryan, Atlanta's chief offseason concern will likely be figuring out how the team is going to protect its quarterback and get more balanced on offense by reinvigorating its rushing attack.
In this piece, we'll take a look at each spot along Atlanta's offensive line and preview some of Atlanta's options for upgrading the position via free agency and the draft this offseason. We'll get started at offensive tackle.
Current Falcons Tackles: Lamar Holmes, Jeremy Trueblood (pending 2014 free agent), Ryan Schraeder, Terren Jones, Sam Baker (injured reserve) and Mike Johnson (injured reserve/pending 2014 free agent)
Notable 2014 Draft Prospects: Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama), Taylor Lewan (Michigan), James Hurst (North Carolina), Cameron Erving (Florida State) and Antonio Richardson (Tennessee)
Assessing the Falcons' Need
Second-year tackle Lamar Holmes has taken his lumps this season, but he's improved since the beginning of the year. If Holmes can get in better shape this offseason and develop more of a mean streak, he could end up being a player. Along with Holmes, Atlanta expects to have Sam Baker back at 100 percent once the offseason conditioning program begins.
While Ryan Schraeder and Terren Jones will likely be evaluated over Atlanta's last five games, it's probably a safe bet to say that Jeremy Trueblood won't be back in 2014.
The Falcons may be in decent shape at tackle with a more-seasoned Lamar Holmes and a healthy Sam Baker at tackle entering 2014, but I'm not so sure that Arthur Blank is going to be comfortable with being "decent" at offensive tackle after the way Matt Ryan has been harassed this season.
Indeed, if Blank is looking at 2014 as a make or break year for Smith and Dimitroff, they may be unwilling to hitch their hopes to Baker staying healthy and Holmes continuing to improve. That could put a guy like Jake Matthews in play with Atlanta's first-round pick whether or not Jadeveon Clowney is on the board. Remember, Arthur Blank has almost $105 million invested in Ryan.
With Matthews, Holmes and Baker in the fold, the Falcons would have three players who could compete for two spots in camp and a reliable insurance policy if one of two players goes down with an injury during the season. Moreover, a Matthews-Holmes combination at tackle could set the team up very well for the long term.
Mike Johnson caught a tough break when he was injured in the preseason, but there's still an open question as to whether open question as to whether he is worth re-signing to a new deal based on what he'd shown before the injury. Even though Johnson proved to be a valuable backup at times, he was beaten out by Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz for the starting right guard spot in consecutive seasons.
Current Falcons Guards: Justin Blalock, Garrett Reynolds, Harland Gunn, Sean Locklear (pending 2014 free agent, listed at guard on team's website even though he's played mostly at tackle in the past)
Notable 2014 Draft Prospects: Cyril Richardson (Baylor), David Yankey (Stanford), Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State), Zack Martin (Notre Dame)
Assessing the Falcons' Need
Some may argue that right guard is a bigger need for the Falcons than either of the offensive tackle positions. Garrett Reynolds plays hard, but the reality is that he doesn't have the size or strength to be the kind of mauler that Atlanta needs to anchor its run game on the right side of the line. His best position with the team moving forward may be as a backup tackle.
Peter Konz started at Reynolds' spot in 2012, and the Falcons tried him again at guard recently. But Konz didn't do much to distinguish himself.
If Atlanta doesn't find an upgrade at right guard in free agency or in the draft, it really won't matter what they do at tackle.
While the Falcons first-round pick will most likely be slotted too high for the team to take a guard, they could have an opportunity to snatch up a quality prospect to upgrade this position at the top of second round of the draft regardless of which direction they decide to go in the first round.
The team may want to give Harland Gunn a look down the stretch too.
Curren Falcons Centers: Joe Hawley (pending 2014 free agent), Peter Konz
Notable 2014 Draft Prospects: Travis Swanson (Arkansas), Bryan Stork (Florida State)
Assessing the Falcons' Need
Joe Hawley's play has been a pleasant surprise in recent weeks. If Hawley continues to play at a high level, he may very well earn a contract extension with the team after it looked like he may have been out the door when Konz won the starting center job in camp.
Should the team decide to re-sign Hawley, it's unlikely that they'd add another center via free agency or the draft since Konz will be under contract next season too.
The importance of improving the offensive line play on this team cannot be understated for Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. While injuries may have bought them some slack this season, it's doubtful that Arthur Blank would bring both men back if the team performs like this in 2014, even if Matt Ryan were to miss time on injured reserve.
For the Falcons to keep Ryan upright and re-establish a physical running game, they'll need to upgrade the talent and depth along their offensive line.
How do you want to see them do it?
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