ESPN’s Vaughn McClure already posted the numbers of the new deal that center Joe Hawley signed with the Atlanta Falcons on Tuesday. However, I’m going to talk about what those numbers really mean from a roster standpoint.
Here’s a basic overview of what Hawley got from the Falcons:
Contract: two years, $6 million with an additional $500,000 available through incentives
Guarantees: $3 million ($2 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary in 2014)
2014: $2 million ($1 million base salary + $1 million bonus proration)
2015: $4 million ($3 million base salary + $1 million bonus proration)
Pay close attention to those cap hits, particularly Hawley’s 2015 number. That’s a fairly high number for a center. Comparing that to Todd McClure, who in the final year (2011) of his extension signed in 2006 counted just $2.3 million against the cap. It’s also worth noting that the 2015 cap hit for Hawley is currently tied with Jason Kelce for the 10th highest at the position. Kelce just signed a lucrative six-year contract extension.
The point is that Hawley won’t be allowed to make that sort of money as a backup or even an underwhelming starter. Hawley not only will need to win the starting center spot in any potential competition with Peter Konz this summer, but he’ll have to play at a level in 2014 where there is zero doubt that he deserves the same role in 2015.
In seven starts in 2013, Hawley earned a combine grade of -2.0 according to premium website Pro Football Focus. That grade represents a below average center, although it’s worth nothing that it’s his grade fell into the negative largely because of a -4.6 effort against the Carolina Panthers in the season finale, which was marred by a botched snap that killed the Falcons’ comeback efforts.
Hawley also had a poor effort against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13, which earned him a -3.2 grade from Pro Football Focus. In that game, he struggled against Marcell Dareus and Alan Branch whenever they lined up over him at nose tackle. What is interesting is that outside Week 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the finale against the Panthers, all of the Falcons’ games featuring Hawley at center came against 3-4 defenses. And for the most part, Hawley fared well.
Matching up against larger 3-4 nose tackles was a notable weakness of McClure during his career in Atlanta. Hawley has a similar degree of aggressiveness to McClure, plus has more size and strength, which is likely the reason for his being a better matchup. He’ll continue to get tested by bigger defenders in practice on a weekly basis as he’ll be facing new addition Paul Soliai.
In seven starts, Hawley allowed three hurries, 4.5 pressures, and no sacks last season according to Moneyball reviews. He also missed a pair of blocks, but made four key blocks. Extrapolated over a 16-game season, that would work out to be about seven hurries, 10 pressures, zero sacks, 4.5 missed blocks, and nine key blocks.
It is interesting that in McClure’s last good season as a starter (2011), he gave up 1.5 pressures, 0.5 sacks, 10.5 missed blocks, and had 7.5 key blocks in 13 games. Back in 2011, I did not keep track of hurries, but the other numbers indicate that McClure’s pass protection then was far better than Hawley’s was last year. But Hawley is the much better run blocker with less than half the number of missed blocks and more key blocks.
It’s also worth noting that all four of Hawley’s key blocks as a starting center last year were second-level blocks. He had a pair against the New Orleans Saints in Week 12, with one coming against Roman Harper to spring Steven Jackson on an eight-yard run in the first quarter on a 3rd-and-2, and the second coming when blocking Curtis Lofton a 12-yard screen pass to Jason Snelling. That gain was later negated by a personal foul penalty on Jeremy Trueblood after the whistle. Against the Green Bay Packers he got a second-level block against linebacker Brad Jones that helped Jackson run for 22 yards on a sweep to start the second quarter. The following week against the Washington Redskins, he peeled off a double team of Jarvis Jenkins with Justin Blalock to shoulder linebacker Nick Barnett, which sprung Jackson for an 11-yard gain on a 1st-and-10 in the second quarter.
It all illustrates that Hawley is particularly good at getting downfield and nailing linebackers. That is often a hallmark of good zone-blocking, a scheme that Hawley like McClure could be a very good fit in. He’s certainly an improvement over Konz there, who routinely missed blocks when asked to play in space or on the second level.
The Falcons also added guard Jon Asamoah in free agency to play right guard position, and he’s another player that fits better in a zone-blocking scheme than one that is power-oriented. Potentially the Falcons could feature a starting offensive line that features at least three starters that are better fits in a zone-heavy blocking scheme, including left tackle Sam Baker. It’ll be worth noting to see if the Falcons make substantial adjustments to the blocking scheme in 2014 because of this.
Keys for Hawley will be at least maintaining his ability as a run blocker, but also making significant improvements in pass protection. While it’s unlikely he’ll be as polished as McClure was in 2011, the latter’s 12th as a starter, cutting those extrapolated pressure and hurry numbers in half would be a good benchmark for Hawley in 2014.
If he doesn’t reach that level or inspire a lot of confidence in 2014, it’ll be hard for the Falcons to justify bringing him back at that relatively high cap number in 2015. The team could potentially save $3 million in cap space by releasing him and could invest that in an upgrade at the position. Or potentially hand the reins back to Konz if he shows improvement in 2014, as his $1.1 million cap hit in 2015 could potentially represent better bang for the team’s buck.
Another interesting possibility is that if Hawley does play at a high level in 2014, he could himself land a lucrative contract extension. A 2014 season where Hawley showcases McClure-like pass-protecting skills and also improves in the run game could have him deserving of being in the same tax bracket as Kelce.
It’s no secret that 2014 will be a make-or-break year for Konz, but will be one Hawley as well.