At offensive tackle, the bulk of the competition in the Atlanta Falcons’ training camp will be for the reserve spots. Left tackle Jake Matthews and right tackle Ryan Schraeder are locked in as starters and looking to take their games to brand new levels in their third seasons as full-time starters.
Their biggest challenges will be handling the increased competition that the entire offensive line is expected to see in 2016. Of the 20 pass-rushers that tallied nine or more sacks last year, 12 of them are on teams the Falcons are slated to face in 2016. And that dozen doesn’t include players like Justin Houston, DeMarcus Ware, Gerald McCoy and Robert Quinn that likely would have also surpassed nine sacks if not for injuries last year.
Even though both tackles played well last season, it remains to be seen if the jump in competition creates potential problems for either. Thus why it’s important that both Matthews and Schraeder get off to strong starts during training camp and the preseason.
Behind them is where the bulk of the competition will happen as the Falcons are looking for a new “swing” tackle that will back up both starters on game days.
It’s likely Tom Compton’s job to lose given that the team signed him this offseason. Bryce Harris should be considered the incumbent, although those backup duties often went to veteran Jake Long last year. Harris was inactive for all but one game after the Falcons scooped him up off the waiver wire at the start of the season.
If the Falcons were confident in Harris’ ability to handle that spot, they would have likely not pushed to sign Long a few weeks into the season, nor would they have pursued Compton in free agency.
Harris has experience as a swing tackle, having served in that exact capacity for multiple years with the New Orleans Saints, logging a combined four starts over three seasons there.
Compton has a bit more experience having started nine games for the Washington Redskins in 2014 alone at right tackle. Compton struggled as the starter, but as a player that is more familiar with the coaching staff he should get a leg up in any competition.
Compton played under Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for two seasons after the Washington Redskins selected him in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He also worked with Falcons offensive line coach Chris Morgan when the latter was an assistant line coach with the Redskins in those same years.
Not to mention the fact that Compton also got some first-team reps at right guard during the offseason is another indicator that the coaching staff is a bit higher on his ability than that of Harris.
But even should Compton win the swing tackle spot, it won’t necessarily prevent Harris from earning a spot on the roster. As noted above, the Falcons kept four tackles on the team for most of last season and could do so again in 2016. If that is the case then Harris will face competition from Laurence Gibson, the only other true tackle that the team is bringing into camp.
While Harris has experience, Gibson has athleticism and upside. A former seventh-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2015, he spent his rookie year on the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs after the Cowboys dumped him at the end of camp.
Gibson’s youth and athleticism suggests there is still some developmental upside that may not be the case with Harris. But Gibson will have to clean up his technique and pass protection in order to leapfrog Harris.
If the Falcons have complete confidence in Compton’s ability to back up both Matthews and Schraeder, it may prompt the team to become more willing to take a chance on a developmental option like Gibson as their fourth tackle rather than the more experienced Harris. But the fact that Harris has spent a year already on the team means that his status as a more known commodity should help him in any roster battle.
In the end, the competition between the three backups should net at least one competent reserve if not two for the Falcons this summer. But the team’s main focus at offensive tackle will remain watching to see how much their pair of starters in Matthews and Schraeder improve this year.