Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview 2014: Interior Offensive LineThe Atlanta Falcons finally stabilized the interior of the offensive line this offseason by signing Kansas City guard Jon Asamoah to handle right guard duties. Since the team allowed Harvey Dahl to depart via free agency three seasons ago, there has been a revolving door of one poor player after another stuck at that position.
The addition of Asamoah gives the team an accomplished player that will do well to bolster their pass protection, something that should greatly benefit quarterback Matt Ryan. If there are any issues surrounding Asamoah, it’s the run blocking that is a relatively minor concern.
Asamoah made his bones in Kansas City as a productive starter mainly with his athleticism and ability to block on the move in their zone-blocking scheme. That has not been the style of blocking the Falcons have preferred over the course of the Mike Smith Era, thus raising the question of how much, if any, adapting the Falcons will do for Asamoah.
Opposite Asamoah at left guard, Justin Blalock returns and was the team’s best blocker a year ago. But given the Falcons had one of the league’s worst lines, that might not be saying a lot.
But 2013 was one of Blalock’s better seasons as a Falcon and if he can carry that momentum in 2014, it should give the Falcons the best pair of starting guards that they’ve had in more than a decade. While Blalock has never blossomed into one of the league’s premier guards, he has become relatively consistent with above average to good play each year as he enters his eighth season in the league.
Contrasting with Blalock, there is a lot more uncertainty surrounding Joe Hawley at center. While Hawley played mostly well down the stretch as a replacement for Peter Konz at center, that does not automatically mean that given the opportunity to start every game this year will automatically translate to equal or greater success.
This summer will be an important one for Hawley, as he is getting his first legitimate chance to be the team’s long-term option at center. Initially drafted as the heir apparent to Todd McClure in 2010, Hawley was leap-frogged when the team drafted Konz in 2012.
Konz in the meantime has put together two very disappointing seasons playing both center and right guard and now Hawley is poised to regain the status he once held. Of all the five starting positions up front, the center spot will have the most direct competition, but expectations are that it is Hawley’s job to lose.
The Falcons haven’t given up on Konz, and he’ll likely be safe for a roster spot as Hawley’s backup. Konz is the front-runner to win one of the two reserve spots given to offensive linemen on game days due to his ability to play both center and guard. Pushing him potentially are a pair of guards in Mike Johnson and Gabe Carimi.
Johnson has had multiple opportunities to win starting positions over the past four years, but untimely injuries always seemed to sidetrack him. He was expected to be the team’s starting right tackle a year ago before going down in August with a season-ending injury. But he’s back this year, and if anybody is likely to beat Konz as the team’s top backup inside, it is him. He’s gotten work at center, guard and tackle during his tenure in Atlanta, making him their best option as a true utility backup, capable of filling in at all five positions in a pinch.
Carimi would be labeled a first-round bust from his days with the Chicago Bears, as injuries and poor play prompting his dismissal after two years. The Falcons hope that they have a bit more success with him as a reclamation project this summer than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did a year ago. He could be considered a pet project of new offensive line coach Mike Tice, who coached him in Chicago. Carimi has intriguing size as an interior player which has translated to some success as a run blocker, but he needs to prove that his past issues in pass protection are over.
Competing with Johnson and Carimi will be Harland Gunn. Gunn’s lack of size may make him a better fit as a center, but he played relatively well late last season when he began splitting reps with Konz at right guard. Gunn makes up for his lack of size and strength by being a more aggressive, something that the Falcons offensive line could always use more of.
Between the three of them, they are likely competing for one roster spot, although keeping two becomes a possibility dependent on whether the Falcons keep four tackles.
Also in the mix are guard Adam Replogle, a converted defensive tackle, and center James Stone, an undrafted rookie free agent.
Replogle played well last summer to earn a practice squad spot as a defensive tackle, but at this point he’ll be a project on offense. The Falcons are likely hoping he can be their very own version of Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Nate Chandler, who also began his career as a defensive tackle before moving to guard.
Considering it’s a new position for Replogle, the best-case scenario may be to show a physical and aggressive skill set that impresses coaches enough to land a spot on the practice squad again. The level of experience ahead of him makes earning a roster spot a long shot, but another year on the practice squad could do wonders for Replogle’s development and transition to offense.
Stone is also likely destined for the practice squad with a good summer. The Falcons keeping three centers on the roster is not unheard of since they did so in 2011 with McClure, Hawley and Brett Romberg. But that decision was mostly facilitated by an early-season injury to McClure, and given that Johnson and Gunn have shown the capability of playing center in a pinch, it will make it harder for Stone to justify such a move today.
In their interior offensive line, what was once a liability for the Falcons, now appears to be a strength. So much so that the likelihood is pretty good that several of the players that lose out in competitions this summer could easily wind up landing on other teams and carving out significant roles.
While the starting positions aren’t likely to be contested, the depth will be, and it should bring out the best seen in this unit in some time.