Could the Atlanta Falcons Stick with the Same Offensive Line Personnel in 2014?

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Could the Atlanta Falcons Stick with the Same Offensive Line Personnel in 2014?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Matt Ryan with a clean pocket in the San Francisco game.

The simple answer is yes.

Atlanta could and honestly should stick with the current personnel that they have on the offensive line. This includes the injured Mike Johnson and Sam Baker as well as free agent Joe Hawley. But the Falcons do have a ton of talent already on the line.

The real issue comes down to perception. Because Matt Ryan has been sacked the most times in his career in the first year of his new contract structure, people have this feeling that he needs a better offensive line.

And don't get me wronghe definitely does need a better offensive line. But the method of achieving this isn't to go out and bring in five new starters like what has been suggested. That's a misconception.

Another misconception is that Ryan needs the best offensive line in the league to be exceptional. In all honesty, he doesn't. And also, are we sure that the issue with the line doesn't come down to coaching? 

On top of that, continuity on the offensive line has been abysmal. Maybe if Ryan had a group that showed it was talented enough to stick together for the season, he wouldn't have been hit as much as he has been.

 

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Matt Ryan Doesn't Need a Great Offensive Line to Play Great

As seen in the San Francisco game on Monday night, Matt Ryan can perform well without having a single Pro Bowl-caliber lineman. Heck, he only had one player on the line who had started a complete season in the NFL. Yet, the lined allowed just one sack and 13 pressures on 52 pass plays all game.

And despite having a down year by the standards he has established for himself, Matt Ryan has a 67.3 percent completion percentage, 4,235 yards passing and 24 touchdowns this year. Imagine if his offensive line didn't have two guys who had no business starting in the NFL on it in Garrett Reynolds or Jeremy Trueblood.

If Atlanta does decide to stick with their current group of talent, they will have eight guys who have shown some talent at some point in their football lives in Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, Ryan Schraeder, Mike Johnson, Peter Konz, Harland Gunn, Justin Blalock and Joe Hawley.

Ryan has improved his pocket presence because of the way this season has gone. It's now to a point that what he really needs is competence from his offensive line. He needs them to be collectively average. If they feel that the current group can accomplish this, they will keep it intact.

 

Is It Coaching, or Is It Talent?

When it comes to offensive lines, there are two schools of thought. There's one that says that it's all about the talent you have on the line. The other says that it's all about the coaching and that you can bring in guys who are naturally good in one aspect and scheme the other.

I subscribe to the view that it's all about coaching if you can find guys who specialize in one aspect. In this case, the Falcons have at least six guys who have shown that they can be good pass blockers in Baker, Holmes, Schraeder, Gunn, Hawley and Blalock.

So what's the issue with the roster right now? 

They can't run block. And honestly, that comes down to coaching and attitude. With Hawley in at center, the attitude of the line is a bit nastier. But they need better coaching. And they need a scheme that actually fits the talent on the team.

So what Atlanta really needs to do is move to the zone-blocking scheme in the run game. And then in the passing game, make sure they scheme proper protections with chips and nudges on the edge to help their tackles out. 

The zone-blocking scheme will take advantage of the quickness that the offensive line has and instead of using underpowered guys to run a power blocking scheme, the Falcons could actually run them in the proper scheme for their talent.

On top of coaching, it's a lack of chemistry and leadership that led to the early struggles on the offensive line.

 

Continuity Could Mean More than Bringing in Better Talent

The Atlanta Falcons from 2008 to 2010 had excellent continuity. They rarely played anyone outside of Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo over those three seasons on the offensive line. That same issue hasn't happened this year.

The many iterations of the Falcons offensive line
# of times used Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
4 Sam Baker Justin Blalock Peter Konz Garrett Reynolds Lamar Holmes
6 Lamar Holmes Justin Blalock Peter Konz Garrett Reynolds Jeremy Trueblood
2 Lamar Holmes Justin Blalock Joe Hawley Garrett Reynolds Jeremy Trueblood
4 Lamar Holmes Justin Blalock Joe Hawley Peter Konz Jeremy Trueblood
3 Lamar Holmes Justin Blalock Joe Hawley Peter Konz Ryan Schraeder
2 Lamar Holmes Justin Blalock Joe Hawley Harland Gunn Ryan Schraeder

Snap logs on ProFootballFocus

As you can see in this table, the Falcons have used six different line combinations on the year. The initial planned offensive line of Baker, Blalock, Peter Konz, Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes didn't get to see more than four games and a combined 190 snaps. 

So looking at this, the Falcons need to settle on a group of players they want to start in 2014 and just use them. It sounds strange, but the Falcons have invested too much into the offensive line already. They need to prioritize Hawley's re-signing and make sure they have a consistent group starting. 

Even if the Falcons decide to draft a guard in the draft, they need to make sure he's the guy to start long-term. This continued lack of continuity hurts more than just the pass protection. It kills the running game as well. The best run-blocking offensive lines are able to keep continuity for multiple years.

The reason Atlanta's offensive line in 2010 did so well was because they not only spent the previous two years gaining chemistry, but they also played all but 14 snaps on the entire season together. And those 14 snaps were all at the end of games when those games were completely over.

If Atlanta can get a group they like and keep them healthy and together all season, expect the offensive line to go from biggest weakness to a moderate strength in 2013. Just who would play at each spot of this improved offensive line?

Let's break it down:

 

Left Tackle

Atlanta has two competent options at left tackle. There's Sam Baker—who is going to be in the second year of a six-year, $40 million contract—and then there's Lamar Holmes. Holmes has filled in admirably despite the poor ProFootballFocus grades.

He's shown improvement in pass blocking all season. However, he still has issues in the run game. With more experience and conditioning, Holmes has potential to be a great NFL tackle. It would be shocking to see Atlanta take a tackle in the draft with Baker and Holmes both looking competent.

 

Left Guard and Center

When it comes to left guard and center, both Justin Blalock and Joe Hawley look more than competent. Both players have registered as the Falcons best offensive linemen this year. Hawley has looked like Todd McClure with more size out there.

And Blalock has been the same steady rock that he's always been. The Falcons need to re-sign Hawley in the offseason. But that shouldn't be super expensive. If Atlanta can keep the interior pairing of Blalock and Hawley together for the next few seasons, the line will be that much better.

 

Right Guard

When it comes to spots on the Falcons offensive line that need to be fixed, right guard is always listed first. Garrett Reynolds and Peter Konz failed there in 2013, but Konz should be given a shot to battle for the starting job there in training camp 2014. 

However, he should have to battle with a re-signed Mike Johnson, Harland Gunn and potentially a draft pick. The only spot on the offensive line that logically should have someone drafted for it is right guard. However, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Falcons take someone in the fourth round or higher for it.

 

Right Tackle

Again, Holmes will fit in fine here. But if Baker gets injured or loses the job at left tackle to Holmes, he will have to compete here as well. Another option is Ryan Schraeder. Yes, he is an undrafted rookie from the 2014 season, but Tyson Clabo was an undrafted player who showed he was starting caliber in the past.

Why couldn't Schraeder be the next Clabo? Add in Mike Johnson and the Falcons have four options who can competently play right tackle in the offense. It's time for Atlanta to start opening up the competition all over the line, and this spot should have the most outside of right guard.

 

In the end, the Falcons have talent on the offensive line. And it shouldn't shock anyone if they believe that they have the talent with their current group if that group is healthy. So despite all of the people wanting a first-round offensive tackle, the logic doesn't show the team going that way.

The logic here shows Atlanta looking to add a piece somewhat later in the draft as competition at guard with Konz, Gunn and Reynolds. It also says they like their group of Baker, Johnson, Holmes and Schraeder at tackle. 

So while people want to give Atlanta a tackle in the first round, it makes the most sense to go with a guard later, and bringing in a center near the end of the draft for depth.

 

All stats used are either from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN, CFBStats or the NFL. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.

Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, College Football, NFL and NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.

Follow @ScottCarasik

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