The Atlanta Falcons created a void at left guard when they released long-time veteran Justin Blalock earlier this offseason. It’s a void that they hoped to fill this offseason and that includes possibly using an early pick in the draft.
If the season started tomorrow, the Falcons would be compelled to start free-agent signee Mike Person at left guard. That’s largely because Sam Baker is still recovering from a major knee injury and the team has been non-committal about his potential role in 2015. Baker would preferably be the top option at guard when healthy, but he has very limited experience at the position. There’s also still the possibility that the Falcons could cut him later this summer to purge his $7.3 million salary cap hit.
The main reason why the Falcons would release Baker down the road is because they added a promising young left guard in the draft. But to find a player that could potentially be asked to start Week One would likely require them to use one their picks in the first three or four rounds.
While there are a couple of candidates that the Falcons have looked at that fit that bill, such as Hobart’s Ali Marpet, Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi or Alabama’s Austin Shepherd, there’s no guarantee they will be able to land one of them when and where they want in next week’s draft. If not, the Falcons would then be forced to draft a later-round prospect that would more than likely need a “redshirt year” to sit before being thrust into the starting lineup.
That would leave the Falcons with fairly thin options for starters, at least when considering the players already on the roster. Person has played 69 career snaps over the past four years, most of them coming as an emergency injury replacement with the St. Louis Rams last year in a handful of games.
Person has the tools to develop into a functional starter but his lack of experience would be a glaring question mark heading into training camp. While it’s fine to have unknowns entering the summer as far as depth is concerned, it becomes a much bigger issue when it’s at a starting spot along the offensive line. Especially given how long it’s taken the Falcons to stabilize that unit after several years of inconsistent and subpar play.
Baker is less of a question mark given his experience, but he’s by no means a sure thing playing inside as opposed to left tackle, where he’s played almost exclusively for the past decade going back to his collegiate days.
Jared Smith, Harland Gunn, Adam Replogle and Peter Konz offer additional depth but it’s doubtful the Falcons see any as potential starters. Both Smith and Replogle are converted college defensive tackles who each have only one preseason’s worth of experience playing on the offensive line. Gunn has shown some ability in brief stints in the lineup, but his lone opportunity to impress last year was very unimpressive. And Konz seems like a poor fit in the new zone-blocking scheme and has been an underachiever the past three years in Atlanta.
The other two positions on the interior offensive line have far less question marks. Center Joe Hawley is returning to the starting lineup after missing most of 2014 with an injury and should make a smooth conversion to the zone-blocking scheme. He’ll be joined by right guard Jon Asamoah, who shined in the same scheme during his early days in Kansas City. Asamoah was the most consistent offensive lineman last year on the Falcons and should only get better in 2015 with the shift in scheme. Behind Hawley is James Stone, who showed improvement as the 2014 season wore on at center. Stone also possesses the sort of athleticism that should make his transition to the new scheme relatively seamless.
The relative strength of those two positions is another reason why addressing the left guard spot should be a priority for the Falcons. There were multiple games last year where the ability of the interior line to hold up against pressure and allow quarterback Matt Ryan a clean pocket to climb was critical to the limited success the Falcons had in 2014. If the left guard spot is a weakness going into 2015, that strength will be somewhat negated and could ultimately prove costly for the Falcons.
It’s certain that the Falcons will draft a left guard, preferably one that is developed enough that he can at least compete right away for a starting position. And if not, then the Falcons should target someone with the upside to make some of the growing pains he might suffer more bearable due to the hopes that his trial by fire leads him to greater success down the road.