The Atlanta Falcons head into 2016 with relative stability at the offensive tackle position, but could easily look to supplement and bolster their depth.
A year ago at this time, left tackle Jake Matthews was coming off an underwhelming rookie season and right tackle Ryan Schraeder was a promising, but still unproven starter. Fast forward to today and Matthews was one of the team’s most improved players in 2015 and Schraeder is fresh off a second consecutive solid year that saw him earn high honors from some observers. The pair give the team a promising set of bookend tackles that they can continue to grow with in the future.
Matthews still struggles at times in pass protection against power, but his athleticism and mobility were a major asset in the team’s much-improved ground attack.
Schraeder is not quite on par athletically, but his toughness and physicality made him a capable two-way player that was effective both in pass protection and run blocking.
However despite the solid year, the Falcons do have to be somewhat concerned about the pair heading into 2016. After all, they will both see a considerable uptick in the quality of opposition.
While quality edge-rushers like Everson Griffen and Ryan Kerrigan were on the team’s schedule this past year, others like Whitney Mercilus and Robert Ayers don’t quite inspire the fear that names such as Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, Von Miller and Michael Bennett inspire. Those latter guys will be on the team’s schedule in 2016 and will test Matthews and Schraeder potentially to their limits.
It remains to be seen if the optimism that currently surrounds the Falcons’ pair of starting tackles will exist a year from now. But the team is in no rush to replace either player and thus their attention this offseason will turn to bolstering depth.
The Falcons can certainly count their blessings that neither Matthews nor Schraeder missed significant time in 2015, which has been a relatively rare feat historically for the franchise. Only three times (2006, 2010, and 2012) since 2000 has the team had a single pair start every game at left and right tackle.
That will put pressure on the Falcons to find a capable swing tackle that can stand up against the elevated quality of pass-rushers the team is expected to see in 2016. It is really unknown if that player is currently on the roster with backups Jake Long and Bryce Harris set to hit free agency.
Long has an extensive history starting in this league, but whether or not he wants to return to Atlanta for a mere reserve spot remains to be seen. Even though injuries have taken their toll on the 30-year old Long, it’s still possible that he could go elsewhere and have a greater possibility to start.
That probably means that Harris the likelier of the two to return. Harris saw almost no action with the Falcons in 2015 after being picked up by the team during final cuts from the New Orleans Saints. Harris has shown himself to be an occasionally competent fill-in with the ability to play either tackle spot, making him a relatively easy player to re-sign. But it’s likely that the Falcons could potentially do better.
But without a plethora of draft picks, it might be difficult for the team to pull the trigger on a rookie that has very limited potential to be a starter. Unless the Falcons can trade back and pick up more picks in the middle or later portion of the draft, adding a rookie that can provide the desired depth is unlikely.
That likely means that the Falcons could scour free agency looking for another veteran that could prove an upgrade over Harris. No obvious candidate immediately jumps out from the crop of players set to hit the market, but it won’t stop the Falcons from looking.