It is not a big secret that a major need for the Falcons headed into the off-season is improving their performance in the trenches. They got whipped up front by the New York Giants in the playoffs, as well as teams like Houston during the regular season. It exposed their inability to compete at the higher levels, which has been a big reason why the team has yet to win its first postseason game under Mike Smith. Getting stronger on the offensive line can be a major step forward to try and correct that issue.
D. Orlando Ledbetter wrote a few weeks back about whether or not the Falcons should try to sign Marcus McNeill, if the San Diego Chargers choose to part ways with him next month. It seems like that is a likely conclusion since the Chargers can clear $10 million in cap space by making the move. The key part of the equation will be whether McNeill can pass a physical, having suffered from chronic neck and spinal injuries over the years. He finished the year in San Diego on injured reserve due to suffering neck injuries that forced him out of two games in late October and November. He had off-season neck surgery following 2008, and had two surgeries on his knees last year in February and August.
When McNeill has been healthy, he’s been very good. The massive run blocker would be an upgrade at left tackle for the Falcons. One of the major issues with Sam Baker there has been his inability to get push in the ground game. McNeill has only been recorded with giving up 12.25 sacks over the past four seasons in 50 games played, according to STATS LLC. Compared to Baker, who according to STATS has given up 16.5 sacks in the last 28 games he’s played in Atlanta over the past two years.
An interesting proposition for the Falcons could be teaming McNeill with a former college teammate at Auburn in free agent guard Ben Grubbs. The pair started alongside each other for two seasons at Auburn before McNeill became a second round pick in 2006. Grubbs stayed for another year and was taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens in 2007. Grubbs has since developed into one of the better offensive guards in the league, playing in his first Pro Bowl this past year. Known for his solid run blocking and pass protection skills, he would be an upgrade at that position for the Falcons over Justin Blalock. Blalock has been serviceable to solid over his tenure in Atlanta, but is by no means a lynchpin for the team on the left side.
Grubbs is a free agent, one which the Ravens are intent on keeping. But the Ravens will be hard-pressed because they won’t be able to use their franchise tag on him (that will be reserved for running back Ray Rice), and Grubbs stands to make a pretty penny on the open market. With Carl Nicks set to hit free agency as well, and deals signed by players like Jahri Evans and Davin Joseph in recent years, whoever winds up with Grubbs is likely going to have to spend big.
But can the Falcons be that team? Last year, the Falcons re-signed Blalock to a six-year $38 million contract with $16 million in guaranteed money. If the Falcons get into a bidding war with a team like the Chicago Bears, it could drive up the price. To the point that it will likely exceed the deal signed by Blalock and potentially passing Evans and Josephs’ deals. Evans signed a deal that averaged over $8 million per year, while Joseph’s averaged just over $7.5 million per year. Both got guaranteed money of $19 million. If Carl Nicks is successful in broaching a deal that exceeds that of his Saints teammate in Evans, it will set the market and likely mean that the Falcons could wind up paying more than $20 million in guaranteed money for a player like Grubbs.
Could re-uniting Grubbs with his former college teammate McNeill as a revamped left side of the line make the Falcons more attractive than a team like Chicago?
The question then becomes are the Falcons confident in McNeill’s ability to stay healthy to make a run at him? That is a big question mark going forward, and whether he would wind up in Atlanta likely will rest solely on the opinions of team doctors.
But there is a potential fallback at left tackle in the player that replaced McNeill at Auburn: King Dunlap. Dunlap is a player that I’ve connected before as a potential target for the Falcons on the open market. Dunlap and Grubbs started together in 2006, before the latter left for the draft. Dunlap was a seventh round pick for the Philadelphia Eagles a year later in 2008. Since then, he’s been buried on the depth chart behind Jason Peters, one of the league’s premier left tackles. But in a few spot starts over the years, he has handled himself fairly well, including a solid effort against John Abraham in 2010. The other thing you like about him is the fact that Dunlap has also played some guard and right tackle too. That showcases versatility so that even if he is less than stellar at left tackle, the Falcons could potentially plug him in as a utility reserve. Given the Falcons seem intent on retaining Sam Baker, they might be looking for someone to push him rather than outright replace him. And Dunlap’s versatility if in a situation where he would lose in a competition with Baker still allows him to give the Falcons value.
Dunlap is by no means a proven commodity, with seven starts in his career and only three of them coming at left tackle. But Dunlap could be described as a poor man’s McNeill since both share great size and ability as run blockers. With Dunlap the needle is pointing up, while it seems to be going the opposite way with McNeill. It could still represent a nice reunion of sorts for the former Auburn teammates, if the Falcons can land him and Grubbs.
If the Falcons were to add Grubbs, they could shift Justin Blalock over to right guard. While Blalock has spent his entire time in Atlanta playing on the left side, he played exclusively on the right side during his collegiate career at Texas. He could be a nice upgrade at that spot and should have minimal issues developing a rapport with Tyson Clabo, someone he has played with for the past four years. That would allow the newcomers in Grubbs and either tackle to rediscover their old rapport.
It would be a bold strategy for the Falcons to try and employ, and perhaps something of a cherry on top to go alongside the boatloads of cash the Falcons could potentially drop in front of Grubbs as a free agent target. But if they were able to pull it off, then the Falcons could accomplish their goal of strengthening themselves in the trenches, and be poised to take serious strides offensively going forward.