Those questions mainly are whether Baker can rebound after a 2013 season depleted by injuries and poor play, and whether Matthews can make an impact as a rookie. And those questions won’t get answered until the regular season, regardless how this summer turns out.
As for the first question about Baker, there isn’t a lot of room for optimism. In six years in Atlanta, Baker has managed to stay fully healthy for two seasons (2010 and 2012) and only in the latter year did he perform at a high enough level to merit distinction.
If there is reason for hope, it is that Baker’s performance against Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy in Week 9 was good, especially relative to his three appearances at the outset of 2013.
The hope is that in 2014, Baker can potentially string 16 starts together similar to his performance against Carolina. Otherwise, his future will be limited in Atlanta due to the presence of Matthews on the other side.
There’s little doubt the Falcons envision Matthews as the long-term blindside protector for quarterback Matt Ryan. The son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, Jake has the potential to be a long-term fixture. If his career is just half as successful as his father’s, then fans can expect Matthews to play a decade in Atlanta.
But how that decade may go could depend on how well his rookie season goes. While Matthews is a relatively polished product coming into the league, similar statements have been made about other recent rookie tackles that have struggled in their transition to the pros.
There is a likelihood that there will be several early headaches for Matthews, which comes with the territory of being a rookie in the NFL, particularly at offensive tackle.
But if Matthews can power through and put together a solid year, then it should have significant benefits for the Falcons offensive line, who struggled to keep Ryan’s jersey clean last season.
There should also be heavy competition for the right to be the swing tackle that backs up both starting positions. Lamar Holmes, who replaced Baker for most of last season is the top candidate. Holmes was too inconsistent last season, although he showed promise at times. He’ll need to show growth under the tutelages of new line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman.
Pushing Holmes will be Ryan Schraeder, a 2013 undrafted rookie that became a surprise in last summer’s training camp. Schraeder is raw, given he has only been playing football for four years, including last season. But Schraeder possesses good size, athleticism and toughness to develop into a capable starter. He showed promise in his four starts last year, although there were still many instances that he was overwhelmed.
But given that sort of upside and the Falcons historic problems of developing good linemen, it’s likely he should retain a hold on a roster spot to see where he could be a year or two down the road.
In Mike Johnson and Gabe Carimi, the Falcons have another pair of reserves with experience at tackle. But in all likelihood, both will spend the majority of their summers competing for reserve roster spots at guard rather than tackle. But they still can be capable emergency options in case injuries hit tackle again.
Terren Jones managed to make the team’s practice squad last year, although his play during the preseason didn’t exactly merit it. However, Jones possesses upside from his sheer size alone. Listed at 341 pounds, Jones looked stiff and lumbering in his movements last summer but with significant growth this summer, then he has an outside shot of landing on the roster. However, the more likely outcome is him spending another year on the practice squad.
The Falcons only truly need to keep three tackles since Matthews, Holmes and Schraeder have the ability to pull double duty on both sides of the line coupled with the presences of Carimi or Johnson inside. However, the potential upside of both Holmes and Schraeder likely will prompt them to keep both as reserves to fit four tackles on the roster. Long-term the goal will be that one of the two will emerge as a book-end option across from Matthews.