The Atlanta Falcons underwent some significant changes over the past several months in terms of their offensive tackle position, but may have finally found some stability.
Last summer, the team was prepared to start rookie Jake Matthews at right tackle, with veteran Sam Baker on the left side. But then Baker was injured, and Matthews was thrust into his vacated position earlier than expected.
The Falcons then hoped that Lamar Holmes could fill the void at right tackle, but he too was lost for the season due to injury early on. Then came the time of Gabe Carimi on the right side, but it only took a couple of games before the team moved on thanks to his subpar performance. That’s when Ryan Schraeder was thrust into the lineup.
Schraeder proceeded to solidify the spot, showing competent to good abilities both as a run blocker and pass protector. And now, the second-year pro and former undrafted free agent enters 2015 as the incumbent starter at right tackle. One of the questions that the Falcons new coaching staff will have to answer is how confident they are that Schraeder will remain atop the depth chart
The answer to that question will determine how big a need the offensive tackle position is this offseason. The team is likely to move on from Baker this offseason, giving his high cap hit and inability to stay healthy. Carimi probably won’t be back either. He was the pet project of offensive line coach Mike Tice, who is now in Oakland and replaced by Chris Morgan.
Holmes still has a year left on his contract and may get another opportunity to finally prove himself. He has been marred with either poor play or injuries the past two seasons, which is not a good combination. More than likely, with the Falcons moving to a zone-blocking scheme, he’ll be relegated to becoming a swing tackle since he’s not the ideal fit for that scheme.
However, Schraeder and Matthews are both good fits for the new scheme. Both have the athleticism and mobility to block on the move as the scheme often asks. Both will spend quite a bit of time honing their ability to seal the backside with cut blocks, a hallmark of the Alex Gibbs-derived zone-blocking scheme that Morgan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan are expected to employ. Schraeder is one of the team’s nastier defends, and could potentially blossom as a cut blocker. The same can be said of Matthews, who was a very reliable cut blocker during his days at Texas A&M.
If the Falcons are confident in Schraeder’s potential, the only major concern is bringing in a reserve swing tackle to push Holmes. That depth becomes a bit more important given the fact that Matthews is coming off a lisfranc foot injury suffered late last season. Matthews’ first season in Atlanta was marred by multiple injuries, leading to some particularly poor play during the middle portion of the year.
While team officials expressed confidence that Matthews would make a healthy return this year, he may be absent for a portion of the offseason. Coupled with the question marks surrounding Holmes, it becomes even more important for the team to find a tackle that gives them insurance in case Matthews doesn’t shake the injury bug come September. Not to mention, giving the team another option in the event that Schraeder’s growth is stymied this year.
Given the youth of Matthews and Schraeder, the Falcons might be best served bringing in a veteran free agent to solidify that depth. A player like Washington’s Tyler Polumbus makes a lot of sense. He played for Morgan and Shanahan in Washington, but also spent some time in Seattle while Dan Quinn was there in 2010. Polumbus is an adept right tackle in the zone-blocking scheme, but also has some experience playing left tackle as well as guard over the years.
Polumbus was benched last season with the Redskins, but was never a great fit in the power-oriented blocking scheme installed by head coach Jay Gruden there. He’ll turn 30 this offseason and likely won’t find too many suitors for his services as a starter, meaning the Falcons shouldn’t have too much trouble landing him.
If not a veteran like Polumbus, the Falcons may wait until the latter part of the draft to add another developmental prospect. But that would make offensive tackle among the youngest and inexperienced positions across the roster, which may not be ideal given the team’s desire to protect their $100 million investment in quarterback Matt Ryan. That would also serve as somewhat a referendum on Schraeder, suggesting that the team isn’t quite sold on him as the long-term starter at right tackle.