Camp Battles 2012: Offensive Line
The offensive line is likely to be the most contested offensive position group in camp. Unlike the other offensive positions, the Falcons aren’t currently set on their starting lineup. The brunt of the competition will come at the two weakest spots from a year ago: left tackle and right guard. Sam Baker is the incumbent at left tackle, although he remains a question mark because he was effectively benched last year after a very poor start to the season. Will Svitek replaced him and proved to be an upgrade. But the team remains optimistic about Baker’s abilities, excusing much of his struggles due to injuries. The team drafted rookie Lamar Holmes as well in the third round, and he’ll push for time as well. But by missing rookie mini-camps with a foot injury likely will have Holmes climbing an uphill battle in camp to gain the starting spot. More than likely the spot will come down to Baker or Svitek, with Baker having the advantage going into camp because he worked the majority of first team snaps in the off-season.
At right guard, the team could have a new face as two of their off-season additions will be competing there. Free agent pickup Vince Manuwai and top pick Peter Konz will be pushing for playing time behind Garrett Reynolds, who is considered the incumbent. Reynolds got the majority of first team snaps during OTAs, a small surprise given that Reynolds, like Baker, lost his job in 2011. He was replaced after a sluggish start by Joe Hawley, who was an improvement but only slightly over the second half of the season. Reynolds has struggled with extensive reps at the guard position largely due to his height, which is disadvantageous inside at guard. Manuwai worked mostly with the second unit during minicamps, and is the strongest candidate among the two to push for time. Konz played exclusively as a center during his days at Wisconsin, and split time between both spots this off-season. He still has a small learning curve at guard, and while he will be given a legitimate opportunity to win the starting spot, he’ll likely be on the outside looking in.
The other three roster spots are pretty much locked up as the team brought back center Todd McClure along with left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo. Blalock and Clabo won’t face any competition for their jobs, while McClure will be pushed by Hawley. McClure has never lost his starting spot in his 13-year career, so it doesn’t seem likely that he will do so this summer. But the Falcons will give Hawley a chance to emerge as the team wants to get more physical up front. Hawley was miscast as a guard last year, but his skillset is much more suited to playing the pivot where he is fiesty and physical. That sort of mentality will be welcomed at the center position. But he’s not nearly as polished as McClure and certainly lacks McClure’s extensive experience and knowledge calling out blocking assignments.
But even if players like Hawley, Konz, and Holmes don’t win starting positions, they are virtual locks to be among the final nine or ten blockers that could make the 53-man roster. Between Manuwai and Reynolds as well as Baker and Svitek, it doesn’t seem like a sure bet that all will make the roster if they don’t win the starting spot. Svitek is probably the most valuable as a reserve given his versatility to serve as swing tackle and potential blocking tight end.
Also vying for positions include former draftees Andrew Jackson and Mike Johnson. Johnson was a third round pick, but injuries have limited his development over the past two summers. He had the potential to win the starting gig from Reynolds last summer, but an untimely concussion forced him out of the lineup, allowing Reynolds the time to solidify the spot. Jackson will likely get a boost because the Falcons new position coach is his former head coach Pat Hill from Fresno State. The team has been working to cross-train both players for multiple positions to give them some potential added value. Both players have gotten reps at tackle this off-season. But both are fighting an uphill battle to make the roster certainly due to the more experienced players ahead of them. It is noteworthy that both players still remain eligible for the team’s practice squad, although it doesn’t seem likely at this point that either would clear waivers if released by the team.
Also competing in camp are undrafted rookies Bryce Harris, Tyler Horn, and Phillip Manley. All three are longshots to make the roster, but can certainly impress enough to make bids for the practice squad. Harris also followed Hill from Fresno State, but is facing long odds given the added depth at the tackle position. A bit undersized, Harris is an ideal candidate to be placed on the practice squad for a year or two to add some bulk. Horn is stuck behind a relatively deep center group in Atlanta, as he is fourth on the depth chart. And the fact that Hawley and Konz add the versatility of also playing guard, it will make it that much harder for Horn to stand out. Manley offers good size for a guard, but he too is stuck behind a bunch of bodies.
Mike Smith has stressed trying to bolster competition in camp, and very few positions embody that mentality than the offensive line. Its struggles a year ago precipitate that renewed focus on getting the best players on the field. And while the majority of the team’s starting positions are likely settled, there will be a maelstrom brewing as players compete for second unit spots and their football-playing lives. Predicting who the final nine or ten will be on the roster is the most tenuous of any position group. Three of the starters (Blalock, Clabo, and McClure) and three reserves (Hawley, Holmes, and Konz) are fairly safe bets. But beyond that, the last handful of spots will be completely up for grabs.