Atlanta Falcons 2016 Training Camp Preview: Interior Offensive Line

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsAlex Mack

While the Atlanta Falcons enter training camp with well-established veterans atop the depth chart along the interior of the offensive line, there is potential room for competition at either guard spot.

There, the team has returning starters Andy Levitre and Chris Chester at left and right guard, respectively. Both players are coming off decent years, but had enough struggles to at least crack open the door for competition this summer.

Chester is coming off offseason shoulder surgery that forced him to miss much of the offseason. In his absence the Falcons took long looks at a trio of other options at right guard including offensive tackle Tom Compton, former starting center Mike Person and sixth-round draft pick Wes Schweitzer.

If Chester returns healthy for training camp, he shouldn’t have too much trouble regaining his job. His experience playing in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme means that even if the battle is close, Chester should win by default.

It’s clear that the team envisions him as a starter, thus the $2.6 million cap hit that he’s set to carry into 2016 coupled with the fact that the team signed him weeks before he was slated to be fully healthy. Yet Falcons head coach Dan Quinn always stresses competition and Chester won’t be handed anything.

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Andy Levitre

The same could be said of Levitre on the left side, since he struggled with a team-leading 11 penalties last season. Levitre’s price tag is even larger as he’s set to count roughly $5.4 million against the 2016 salary cap. Some reports put Levitre firmly on the bubble entering training camp.

Should either player find themselves on the losing end of the battle for their starting jobs, it would likely prompt their releases since their salaries are too high for backups. But it’s just as likely that the Falcons fully intend to start both players at their respective spots in the hopes of building upon the continuity they began to establish last season.

The team hopes that they’ll get a big boost in that arena from the addition of center Alex Mack in free agency. Mack is a three-time Pro Bowler that has spent much of his first seven seasons in the NFL being considered among the league’s premier offensive linemen. He’s well-versed in Shanahan’s offense, having played for him in 2014 during their shared days in Cleveland.

The Falcons are hopeful that Mack’s veteran presence will provide a huge upgrade over the play of Person from last year, who looked out of his element way too often. Last season marked Person’s first stint of extended reps at center and that inexperience showed too frequently with botched snaps and far too much pressure coming unblocked up the middle from blitzes.

Mack should end those deficiencies, but there are lingering doubts whether or not Mack is still the premier blocker that he once was prior to the broken leg injury that sidelined him midway through the 2014 season. The Falcons hope that any decline that Mack showed a year ago in his final year with the Browns was just rust that he should be primed to shake off in 2016 with a change in scenery.

Should the veteran guards remain in their starting spots, the meat of the competition will be discovering who will become their backups. Person should have a significant leg up in that competition given his experience last year at center making him a perfect fit as the team’s utility lineman inside. Person should also benefit from returning to guard, where he spent the bulk of his NFL career prior to last summer in Atlanta.

Schweitzer’s draft status should help him fend off many of the other suitors that are competing for one, perhaps two roster spots behind the three starters and Person. The Falcons liked Schweitzer enough to draft him and he has at least one supporter on the Falcons coaching staff since assistant offensive line coach Keith Carter was his position coach back in 2014 at San Jose State.

But as last year’s seventh-round offensive tackle Jake Rodgers can attest, being a draft pick doesn’t guarantee one a spot on the 53-man roster. Schweitzer will be pushed by Ben Garland, Collin Rahrig and Michael Huey as well as undrafted rookies Jake Reed and Shahbaz Ahmed.

After beginning the season on the practice squad, Garland finished 2015 on the active roster and probably is the most significant challenger to Schweitzer. He was off and on the Denver Broncos practice squad and roster from 2012 through 2014 before being scooped up by the Falcons last year. That experience, along with the toughness that comes from two years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force and being a converted defensive lineman should help him as he battles for a spot on the roster.

Rahrig is a center and should get a boost in his chances of sticking due to the recent release of James Stone. The same could be said of Huey, who is primarily a guard but also logged some reps at center for the San Diego Chargers last preseason. That versatility to play center could help either since the team already knows that Person is not a natural fit for that role.

That probably also means that between the two undrafted players, Reed stands a better chance of sticking than Ahmed. It’s clear that the Falcons were really impressed by the pair of University of Indiana centers in Rahrig and Reed when they were scouting running back Tevin Coleman a year ago.

It’s likely that several of the reserves will get cross-trained to play some center this summer and anybody that shows enough competence at both guard and center will increase their odds of sticking.

Should he win the competition for swing tackle, Compton’s ability to also play guard means that the team is less likely to keep more than two reserves on the interior. Person and Schweitzer are the two leading candidates to win those spots entering camp but the value of competition stressed by Quinn, as noted above, means that others will have legitimate chances to earn opportunities as well.

While both starters in Levitre and Chester are expected to face heat from the younger hopefuls behind them, it’s most likely that the Falcons will try to avoid repeating the upheaval that occurred last summer along the offensive line with the multitude of roster changes just prior to the start of the regular season.

Instead, they’ll try to build upon what they already established a year ago in the hopes that Mack’s arrival will take this group to brand new heights in 2016.

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Aaron Freeman
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