Camp Battles ’10: Offensive Line
The offensive line may be the only area of the team’s offense that might see a change in the starting lineup this season.
That would likely come at guard, as third round pick Mike Johnson pushes for playing time. More than likely, Justin Blalock will be looking over his shoulder more than Harvey Dahl, since Johnson should have an easier transition to the pros playing on the left side rather than the right. But more than likely, Blalock will retain his starting gig as the Falcons try to build and maintain continuity up front.
Even with the starting lineup likely to go unchanged, there will be a ton of competition for the reserve spots. A typical NFL team only has to keep eight linemen, although the Falcons kept nine for most last season. Because the team will have one or two less players than there are positions on the line, versatility is very important.
Will Svitek can play either tackle position. Quinn Ojinnaka has experience at all five positions. Garrett Reynolds worked both at guard and tackle last summer. Brett Romberg has also played both center and guard in Atlanta. And rookies Johnson and Joe Hawley also have experience playing more than one position in college. Those five players will be the most likely to land the four likely to be available reserve spots.
More than likely, the Falcons would like to keep both rookies on the roster. But just in case neither is quite ready to contribute right away off the bench, the need for the two remaining veterans to be able to play all five positions increases.
Svitek and Reynolds will be in direct competition to see who will be the team’s top reserve at tackle. Sam Baker’s injury history means that this is arguably the most important of the reserve spots. Svitek was serviceable to solid last year as a fill-in starter. Reynolds is untested, but he may have added value due to his experience playing inside. Ojinnaka is the most versatile of the reserves, but his chances of making the opening day roster may be hurt by his one-game suspension. The Falcons should get a roster exemption for that week, but depending on the health of the unit going into the season, the Falcons may not decide to wait. Romberg is probably the most battle tested, having played for assistant coach Paul Boudreau in multiple stops and leading the group with 18 career starts. But the team may deem his presence unnecessary due to Hawley filling a similar niche. There really isn’t a ton of need to carry two reserve centers on the roster. So in both of their cases, how well they perform at guard should only help their causes. Johnson probably has less to worry about since NFL teams rarely cut third round picks and appears slated for a starting position down the road.
Among Jose Valdez, Blake Schlueter, and Rob Bruggeman, their primary concerns will be competing for a practice squad position. Barring really strong camps, it’s doubtful any of them will unseat any of the players ahead of them.
But you can expect the Falcons to probably do a lot of cross-training and mixing and matching in the preseason with their reserve lines to see which players are better able to handle the versatility needed for the regular season.