Besides the wide receiver position, probably the most glaring need along the Atlanta Falcons offense is their weak interior offensive line play, an deficiency the team is likely eager to supplement this offseason.
The team tried to cobble together a unit at the last possible moment last year after placing right guard Jon Asamoah on injured reserve and cutting center Joe Hawley. Andy Levitre was acquired via a September trade and Mike Person was plugged into the starting lineup at center, a fairly brand new position for the former college tackle turned pro guard. Even Asamoah’s replacement in Chris Chester was only picked up after the draft last May.
Things started fairly well for the group, outperforming expectations early in the season when the team started the year 5-0, but things turned more problematic with each passing week. Person was never the same after suffering an ankle injury in Week Six. Levitre was plagued with penalties, finishing the year with 11, nearly matching the total of the other four starters (14) combined.
Compared to the other two, Chester was relatively stable for the entire year. But he’s now a free agent and turned 33 years old in January, putting his future with the Falcons in doubt. Chester expressed his desire to return to Atlanta after the season, but has also undergone shoulder surgery that may make the team hesitant to re-sign him, especially if they can potentially upgrade this offseason.
That is certainly something that the Falcons are likely to attempt and it would be surprising to see the team not exit free agency at the end of March without making at least one major addition to the starting lineup. That could come at any of the three positions, but probably the most glaring spot is center.
Person looked overmatched too often and his routine struggles with snapping and handing blitz calls made him the biggest liability among the three interior starters by year’s end. He is probably better suited to playing guard, where he spent the bulk of the offseason and a good chunk of training camp working at. The Falcons probably plan to kick him over to either one of the guard spots, knowing that he can be a functional starter. Ideally, Person will be slated to be the team’s utility reserve that can back up all three interior spots, but could easily be in the mix for a starting position if there is a competition to be had this summer.
In his absence, the Falcons need to find a starting center. While drafting a young center that can develop long-term is a tempting possibility, the team’s struggles at the position in 2015 might call for a more experienced set of hands to take over in 2016.
That is unlikely to be either Gino Gradkowski or James Stone. Gradkowski is set to be a free agent this year and while the team might desire to bring him back, he’s better suited for depth than being a starter. Stone seemed to lose favor towards the end of the season, but at least offers the versatility to add depth at either guard or center. At this point neither player can be seen as anything more than quality backups with some starting experience. The same can be said of guards Ben Garland and Adam Replogle, who might become nothing more than camp bodies this summer if the Falcons are successful at upgrading this unit in the offseason.
Should he opt out of his contract like most expected, Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack becomes an obvious target for the Falcons on the open market. Mack played under Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2014 and is one of the league’s best centers. But even at age 30, Mack won’t come cheap and it remains to be seen if the Falcons intend to be active in the potential bidding war for the three-time Pro Bowler.
Not only will the team look at prospective free agents at center, but also at guard, where Levitre’s status remains unclear. The Falcons redid Levitre’s contract last September after shipping two late-round picks to the Tennessee Titans via trade. But that restructuring won’t guarantee Levitre safe passage and the team might opt to part ways with him this offseason.
However if they do, it will create another potential void at the guard position that the team might not be able to afford. The Falcons may be better served biting the bullet, keeping Levitre and hoping that they can bolster competition in camp to elevate his play in 2016.
There are a number of free-agent guards the Falcons could target this offseason regardless of Levitre’s future. Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore Ravens), Brandon Brooks (Texans) and Evan Mathis (Denver Broncos) are some of the top free agents that are experienced in the zone-blocking scheme. But Osemele and Brooks offer more size than what Shanahan-led offenses have traditionally preferred at the position, and the Falcons passed on picking up Mathis last summer. It’s doubtful that the Falcons are going to be more willing to add Mathis now that he’s turned 34 years of age.
That would leave second-tier free agents like Jeff Allen (Kansas City Chiefs), Shelley Smith (Miami Dolphins) and J.R. Sweezy (Seattle Seahawks) as candidates that could at least bolster competition at either guard position. Smith was a player the Falcons explored signing last offseason and Sweezy is a known commodity to coaches like Dan Quinn and Chris Morgan.
If the Falcons are unable to land one of the more expensive bigger name free agents like Mack, Osemele or Brooks, they might be best served signing one of the lesser free agents like Smith or Sweezy, and hope that in conjunction with Person, Levitre and/or Chester, a three or four-way competition for either guard spot will allow two capable starters to emerge.
Even if the Falcons do keep either Levitre or Chester, neither player will be seen as anything more than one-year stopgaps. Eventually one or both players will need to be replaced, which is why bolstering this position via the draft will also be a key this offseason.
Whichever position (center or guard) the Falcons don’t address in free agency will likely get towards the middle rounds of this year’s draft. If the Falcons sign a bonafide upgrade at center in free agency, they’ll likely target a developmental guard that could potentially step into a starting role next season. If the team targets a free-agent guard, then they will likely prioritize drafting a center that has the potential to step into the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
The Falcons definitely need to upgrade their interior offensive line play given the need for quarterback Matt Ryan to have a clean pocket to step up in. Given that Ryan isn’t known neither his mobility nor arm strength, being able to slide within a clean pocket as well as step into his throws is critical.
However the Falcons proceed, the interior of their offensive line is set for a shakeup. The team could opt to bring back both Levitre and Chester or just as easily move on from both this offseason. But there’s a near certainty that you’ll see at least one, if not two new starters heading into 2016 at either center or guard.