Relative to the offensive tackle position, the interior of the Atlanta Falcons offensive line has fewer questions to answer this summer. Instead, the Falcons will be hoping to see their projected starters gel into a cohesive unit and hope that one or two of the journeymen behind them can morph into quality reserves.
The move to the zone-blocking scheme under new offensvie coordinator Kyle Shanahan should be a beneficial one for this unit. Right guard Jon Asamoah, who was the anchor of the entire offensive line a year ago, should fit right at home with the scheme change. After all, he excelled for three years as a starter with the Kansas City Chiefs playing in that exact scheme.
Asamoah’s ability to block on the move was a key reason why the team incorporated a lot more pulling into their blocking scheme in 2014. He’ll once again be asked to get out on the move with the new scheme on stretch plays and the like. Asamoah is also an excellent pass protector, holding his own against the league’s premier pass-rushing defensive tackle in Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy last season.
Asamoah is expected to be joined once more by center Joe Hawley, who missed the last 12 games of last season with a knee injury. Hawley has indicated that he isn’t completely recovered from the injury, but expectations are that he’ll still be able to play this summer at a relatively high level. He too should benefit from the scheme change, hoping it will harness his abilities much like it did for long-time center Todd McClure when the Falcons employed the same scheme under Jim Mora from 2004 to 2006.
But keeping an eye out for whether there are any signs that Hawley’s knee is bothersome will be worth monitoring this summer. If he is forced to rest through camp, it will open opportunities for backups to get increased reps with the starting lineup.
Fortunately for the Falcons, their depth at the center position should be stronger than it was a year ago. James Stone filled in at the position during the second half of 2014 and flashed potential. Stone’s athleticism and mobility should make him a good fit in the new scheme also. He’ll simply need to concentrate on become a stronger and more physical blocker at the point of attack, something he struggled with throughout 2014.
He’ll be pushed by undrafted rookie Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, who excelled at getting position and walling off defenders during his days at New Mexico State. Ume-Ezeoke should provide a competitive camp for Stone and is good enough to outright win the backup job behind Hawley if Stone doesn’t take that next step.
The team also has options in Chris Chester, Peter Konz and Harland Gunn, all of whom have experience playing center and could mix them into the competition for backup center. However Chester isn’t likely to get much work at the pivot since he’s expected to start at left guard, replacing long-time starter Justin Blalock at that spot.
Chester is experienced in the new blocking scheme, having played in it for the past several years as a starting right guard for the Washington Redskins. Chester adds some veteran experience and is not a powerful player, but is an impressive athlete that is good when asked to block on the move like Asamoah. Chester struggles at times in pass protection, but typically that mainly comes when he’s facing top interior pass-rushers from around the league. The hope is that a move from the right side to the left will benefit him in that arena, as he should get more help from the center as opposed to being left on an island as is often the case for right guards.
Chester is probably not worried about looking over his shoulder as far as competition for the starting spot goes. The Falcons signed him to a one-year deal worth $2.8 million, which eclipses the combined cap hits of Konz, Gunn and Mike Person this season. If the Falcons didn’t believe that Chester was capable of starting, then they would not have paid him as much.
That leaves Konz, Gunn and Person duking it out with Stone for the chance to be the top backup off the bench, functioning as the team’s sixth offensive lineman on gamedays. Person might be the best candidate given the fact that he was working in the starting lineup at left guard throughout the offseason prior to Chester being signed in May. Despite spending four years in the NFL, Person has seen very limited action in actual NFL games. But he’s a player that the coaching staff is somewhat familiar with given that head coach Dan Quinn worked with him in 2013 when both were in Seattle. That certainly could give him another leg up in the competition, making him the front-runner to be the team’s top interior reserve.
Konz will have to prove that the move to the zone-blocking scheme which emphasizes mobility and athleticism in its blockers is not too much of a stretch. Konz routinely struggled over the years when asked to get out on the move and block.
That was a relative area of strength for Gunn the past two summers, showcasing excellent pulling ability in that span. But while a better fit in the new scheme, Gunn will still have to prove it on the field with his play.
Also in the mix are Jared Smith and Adam Replogle. Both players are converted collegiate defensive tackles. Smith was drafted by Seattle back in 2013, but his only real action was four preseason performances as a rookie before an injury sidelined him for the entirety of 2014. Replogle looked green last summer in his first on the offensive side of the ball, and will need to show that he made the most of his time on the practice squad last season with stronger performances.
While both Smith and Replogle are long shots to leap frog the other more experienced backups on the depth chart, both are prime candidates for the practice squad. The same can be said of undrafted rookie Eric Lefeld, who is making the transition from collegiate left tackle to play inside at guard. Lefeld is a technician that should benefit from the move inside given a lack of athleticism to hold up at offensive tackle. He’ll have to show that his lack of power won’t be problematic when it comes time to competing with opposing defensive tackles this summer.
While backups like Konz, Gunn, Stone and Person are looking to prove themselves this summer, their collective experience indicates that the Falcons are better off at this position depth-wise. The expectation is that through the power of competition, the cream will rise to the top; and whichever player(s) emerge this summer will have proven capable of being called upon in the event of an injury to one of the starters.
It’s why both guard and center should be one of the more competitive position groups on the roster all summer, with the expectation that the five or six players kept on the roster will give the Falcons both capable starting and depth options.