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What the Revamped Atlanta Falcons Offensive Line Should Look Like in 2014

Atlanta Falcons offensive line on the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday,  Nov.  17, 2013 in Tampa, Fla.. The Buccaneers beat the Falcons 41-28. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)
Reinhold Matay/Associated Press
Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterJanuary 18, 2014

Let’s not sugarcoat anything: The Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line in 2013 was bad, maybe even dismal. Atrocious. For those of you studying for the SAT: calamitous.

The Falcons ranked 10th in the NFL after giving up 44 sacks this season, and three times they gave up more than five in one game. In Atlanta’s Week 17 home game against the Carolina Panthers, quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked nine times.

But these sack totals aren’t the worst of it.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), no team in the league gave up more total pressure (sacks plus hits plus hurries) on its quarterback than the Falcons, who allowed Ryan to be harassed a total of 264 times on 710 passing plays. That means Ryan was getting pummeled or in duress 37.2 percent of the time this season.

2013: Pressure Allowed by Offensive Line
TeamPassing PlaysTotal Pressures AllowedPressure Pct.
Atlanta Falcons71026437.2%
Arizona Cardinals62024239%
New York Giants61323638.5%
Houston Texans68422332.6%
Indianapolis Colts65722033.5%
Pro Football Focus

Offensive tackle Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz, who played both center and right guard this season, were the biggest offenders. Holmes gave up 10 sacks, 13 hits and 53 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Konz was responsible for six sacks, three hits and 33 hurries.

Every member of the offensive line had marks against him, even left guard Justin Blalock who had the only positive PFF pass-blocking grade but still gave up five sacks, five hits and 21 hurries.

It looked even worse this season when the offensive line tried to open up holes for its running backs. Joe Hawley, who spent time at right guard and center, was the only linemen who played more than 100 snaps with a positive run-blocking grade.

Atlanta Falcons: 2013 OL
PlayerPlaysPass Block GradeRun Block GradeSacksHitsHurries
Justin Blalock1,1007.0- 4.95521
Lamar Holmes1,075-17.4- 15.2101353
Peter Konz907- 17.2- 15.76333
Garrett Reynolds696- 0.7- 1.44322
Jeremy Trueblood641- 2.0- 2.72724
Joe Hawley553- 3.32.40310
Ryan Schraeder315- 0.3- 3.24012
Sam Baker190- 10.7- 4.41712
Harland Gunn96- 0.31.1013
Pro Football Focus

Who survives that?

Ryan did; he made it through the season, albeit probably a little more sore than he’s ever been at season’s end. But there’s no way he wants to go through that again in 2014.

Team owner Arthur Blank was very critical of play in the trenches when he addressed the media after the season, according to Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com.  

I think the nature of the game is that it's a physically violent game. It is a tough game. To play football on the professional level and the college level or even the high school level, you've got to be a tough kid. You've got to be a tough person, I think. And I think a lot of our players are certainly that.

I think, at the end of the day, if I asked you ... give me a brief definition of what toughness is, I think you might say something else, but you might say to me it's how you control the line of scrimmage. Can you run the ball? Can you stop the run? ... And I don't think we did either one of those things very well this year. So I would say, if you looked at toughness from that perspective, I don't think we were as tough as we needed to be.

Blank also let it be known that the team’s first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft (the Falcons own the No. 6 pick) would “probably not be a skill position.” There’s a chance that Atlanta could go with a defensive end or pass-rushing linebacker, but the smart money is on an offensive lineman.

This unit was so bad though in 2013 that an early-round draft pick might not be enough. The Falcons may go out in free agency and check to see if anyone can help bolster this unit.

The bottom line: Change is needed on the offensive line. The Falcons realized this when they let both offensive line coaches (Pat Hill and Paul Dunn) go and hired Mike Tice as the new coach. Coaching and development will play a crucial role with this unit, and Tice could do wonders with the current depth chart.

But more change is needed. There need to be some personnel changes too.

What might the offensive line look like as it enters training camp in 2014?

 

Center: Joe Hawley

Backup: Peter Konz

TAMPA, FL -  NOVEMBER 17:  Center Joe Hawley #61 of the Atlanta Falcons sets for play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers November 17, 2013 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Tampa won 41- 28. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Hawley just finished the final year of a four-year contract and can become an unrestricted free agent shortly. But the Falcons need to bring him back into the fold.

When Todd McClure started making hints a few years back that he was close to retirement, the Falcons pegged Hawley as the center of the future. But Hawley fell from grace and barely played in 2012 after starting 13 games in 2011, including a playoff game.

He reclaimed the starting job at center in Week 11 this season and was the only offensive lineman with over 100 snaps who did not allow a sack. As mentioned earlier, he was also the only lineman with a positive run-blocking grade.

There are still signs of promise from Konz, who was Atlanta’s second-round draft pick in 2012. If anything, general manager Thomas Dimitroff has shown that he’s not keen on cutting high-round draft picks until it’s an absolute certainty they can no longer perform.

Konz will be around in 2014, but he’ll enter camp as a backup. He has upside and has cross-trained between guard and center at the professional level. Head coach Mike Smith loves his linemen being able to play multiple positions.

 

Left Guard: Justin Blalock

Aug 24, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Atlanta Falcons guard Justin Blalock (63) on the sideline during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field. Tennessee won 27-16. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Blalock has started all 16 games of each of his last six seasons with the Falcons and started 14 games during his rookie season of 2007. Blalock will be the starter at left guard.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), with a grade of 6.8, Blalock’s 2013 season was his best season since 2010. He improved his pass blocking tremendously, and even though he still shows a negative run-blocking score, it rose in 2013 as well.

Blalock is important to this offensive line, as he now is the most tenured piece in Atlanta.

 

Right Guard: Geoff Schwartz

Backup: Garrett Reynolds

Nov 24, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Donald Butler (56) is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz (74) during the first half of the game at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chargers won 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Denny
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Schwartz has been a journeyman of sorts, moving from the Carolina Panthers to the Minnesota Vikings and then to the Kansas City Chiefs, all since 2010. And Schwartz wasn’t even a full-time starter with the Chiefs until Week 12 of this season, but he impressed.

The Falcons need to bolster their line through free agency, and Schwartz would be a good option for his relatively low cost and powerful run blocking.

Schwartz was a $700,000 cap hit to the Chiefs last season and could test the free-agent waters in a few months. He joined The Danny Perkins Show on 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City on Jan. 9 and said he was looking for a multiyear deal because he wanted to “stop moving every offseason.”

The Chiefs will probably have a leg up in negotiations if Schwartz truly wants to gain a little stability, but the Falcons could do worse than to give a look at the league’s 14th-ranked run-blocking guard, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

 

Right Tackle: Greg Robinson

Backups: Mike Johnson, Ryan Schraeder

Oct 27, 2012; Auburn, AL, USA: Auburn Tigers quarterback Clint Moseley (15) runs behind the block of lineman Greg Robinson (73) during the first half against the Texas A&M Aggies at Jordan-Hare Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ll remember, Mike Johnson was slated to be the starting right tackle for the Falcons in 2013 before he suffered a broken fibula and dislocated ankle in training camp.

He’s back at Atlanta’s training facility to continue his comeback. But when he gets back to the field he’ll be behind the team’s first-round draft pick, Greg Robinson from the Auburn Tigers.

Robinson is considered one of the best offensive tackle prospects in the draft and has been a solid top-10 pick in many mock drafts, including NFL.com analysts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks' and ESPN.com (subscription required) guru Mel Kiper Jr.'s

Kiper called Robinson “a potential star at the next level,” and he has the size and agility to make it happen. Robinson is 6’5” and weighs 305 pounds but is quick enough to redirect speed-rushers in pass protection. He’s also got a great base to handle the power-rush specialists too. As good as Robinson is in pass protection, he’s just as adept at run blocking too.

Robinson may have the skills to immediately step in and play his natural left tackle position, but the Falcons might choose to ease him into the NFL by placing him on the right side for one season.

 

Left Tackle: Sam Baker

Backups: Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson

Aug 24, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Atlanta Falcons tackle Sam Baker (72) on the sideline during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field. Tennessee won 27-16. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons aren’t going to have a ton of money to spend in free agency, so adding two veteran starting offensive linemen is probably not going to happen.

If the team can't afford a second free-agent offensive lineman, the obvious choice to start at left tackle then is Sam Baker.

When Baker is healthy he’s a decent option. The problem is that he’s rarely at 100 percent. Baker has started all 16 games of a season only twice in his six-year career: 2010 and 2012. He started 14 games in 2009 but only five in 2008, six in 2011 and four last season.

According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the team has no plans to move Baker to right tackle and expects him to be ready by April to begin preparations for training camp.

Baker and Holmes will see plenty of offseason reps, and there could actually be a left tackle competition at some point. If neither pans out, Johnson could step in as well.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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