The Atlanta Falcons’ concerns at offensive tackle this summer will mostly involve their attempts to solidify their depth as both starters: Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder are fairly entrenched in their spots.
Matthews was forced to make the move to left tackle a year earlier than expected in 2014. While the Falcons always maintained that playing Matthews on quarterback Matt Ryan’s blindside was always their long-term plan, initially they expected him to start at right tackle while veteran incumbent Sam Baker maintained the starting spot on the left side.
However Baker was sidelined for the year during the preseason with a knee injury, forcing Matthews to move to the left side. Matthews started the year well, but was quickly sapped by an ankle injury that bothered him throughout the month of October. After the team’s bye in Week Nine, Matthews’ performance improved as his ankle was healthier.
Unfortunately Matthews suffered a setback in the team’s regular-season finale, suffering a lisfranc foot injury that limited him all offseason. While he was able to return to practice by June’s minicamp, the Falcons will certainly be monitoring the health of that foot throughout the summer.
There is confidence that a healthy Matthews can play at a fairly high level. The Falcons will be relying on Matthews to step up this year given the fact that the left side of the offensive line will inevitably take a hit with the loss of the always consistent and reliable Justin Blalock retiring this offseason.
When Matthews made the switch to from right tackle to left, it was Lamar Holmes that was tasked with manning the vacant right tackle spot. Holmes managed to play competently in four games before a foot injury sidelined him for the year. In what was clearly Holmes’ best offseason of work, the fourth-year blocker suffered a major setback with another foot injury. The exact severity of the injury has gone undisclosed, suggesting that Holmes may or may not return healthy at some point during training camp. If he doesn’t, then his ability to stick on the roster will be significantly undermined. Holmes would be the best candidate to step into the vacant role as the swing tackle given his starting experience playing on both sides of the line.
After Holmes went down last year, the Falcons eventually settled on Schraeder at right tackle. Schraeder finished the season fairly well, showcasing both solid run-blocking and pass-protecting skills. Schraeder should benefit from the move to the zone-blocking scheme being installed by new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan this year. His athleticism, toughness and tenacity would have made him a prototypical player in the cut-block-heavy scheme of Alex Gibbs, which Shanahan’s scheme is modeled upon.
Given the injury concerns surrounding both Matthews and Holmes, the Falcons are going to be very reliant on Schraeder to hit the ground running this summer. While Schraeder has certainly flashed ability the past two camps, he’s never really put together a truly strong summer. That will need to change to add much-needed confidence at this position.
With Holmes sidelined, the team’s top candidate for the swing tackle role becomes free-agent signee Tyler Polumbus. Polumbus is well-versed in the scheme, having started at right tackle for Washington the past four years, three of which coming when Shanahan served as offensive coordinator. But Polumbus typically was a subpar blocker in Washington and struggled in pass protection at right tackle. Asking him to potentially be an injury away from securing Ryan’s blindside seems like a potential disaster waiting to happen.
Barring a healthy return of Holmes or the emergence of one of the teams’ rookies in Jake Rodgers and Matt Huffer, Polumbus may be the Falcons’ best option. In reality, the team’s plan in the event of an injury to Matthews would likely be to employ Schraeder on the left side and plug Polumbus in at right tackle. Prior to the end of last season, Schraeder had routinely looked more comfortable playing left tackle in preseason action than when manning the right side. Schraeder played left tackle during his two-year career at Valdosta State.
Rodgers was one of the team’s seventh-round picks this past April, and is a developmental prospect that could be an effective utility backup given his potential to play both guard and tackle. But Rodgers spent the bulk of his college career playing on the right side, and was someone where pass-protection was not necessarily a strength, making him a less than ideal candidate to be Matthews’ backup at left tackle. He’s raw and is more than likely going to take multiple summers before he hits his stride as an NFL player, thus making the chances he emerges as a swing tackle this summer extremely low.
Huffer has a tall frame with a reputed mean streak that could draw comparisons to Schraeder. However, Huffer is a bit undersized (listed at 285 pounds and only did 14 bench-press reps at his pro day) and thus might not be able to impress as quickly as Schraeder did when he made the Falcons roster as an undrafted free agent in 2013. But Huffer is a player that if he can showcase developmental potential and toughness might be able to land a spot on the practice squad, where he’ll get the much-needed time in the weight room to get stronger.
If no one steps up in Holmes’ absence, it may buoy his chances of sticking. Even if Holmes is unable to return healthy in August, the team might opt to place him on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform list to begin the season and will look for Polumbus, Rodgers or someone else to get them through the first six or so weeks until Holmes is healthy. However if Holmes doesn’t return and someone else emerges, he could become expendable.
Holmes has slimmed down this offseason, shaving off 20 pounds to better mesh with the new zone-blocking scheme that prefers mobile, agile and hostile blockers. But despite the weight loss, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Holmes will automatically mesh with the new scheme especially if he’s unable to see the field to showcase a success transition. Such an absence would almost certainly prompt the Falcons to explore other options on the waiver wire before the regular season begins.
Given the questions surrounding Holmes and Polumbus and whether they’re capable of providing adequate depth, this offensive tackle position is a prime candidate to potentially be upgraded at the end of camp via the waiver wire. The Falcons will be looking for one of the
ir reserves to emerge to give some hope that an injury to either Matthews or Schraeder won’t be devastating and it remains to be seen if they’ll find that given the current group of reserve offensive tackles.