The Atlanta Falcons interior offensive line appears to be set with a trio of entrenched starters, but the team could opt to make some changes this offseason.
The most obvious potential change is whether or not the team decides to cut left guard Justin Blalock. At age 32, he is roughly at the same point that Tyson Clabo was when the team cut him in 2013. However, unlike Clabo at that time, Blalock isn’t coming off a down season. In fact, Blalock is coming off one of his better seasons in recent memory.
The problem facing Blalock is his advance age and high salary. The Falcons could free up nearly $4 million in cap space this year by dumping Blalock, who is signed through 2016. It’s unlikely that Blalock will be able to finish his contract in Atlanta, but he should at least be able to play another season. But even so, the Falcons might need to start grooming his replacement.
The concern with cutting Blalock is that it creates a hole where there isn’t already one. While Blalock is a less than ideal fit for the team’s new zone-blocking scheme, there’s no guarantee that a replacement, especially a rookie, would be a better immediate option.
At the other guard spot, Jon Asamoah was one of the team’s most consistent offensive players in his first season with the Falcons after four solid years with the Kansas City Chiefs where he shined in a zone-blocking scheme. So the team’s shift in scheme should only make him more effective. The only real knock on Asamoah is that his play started to dip late in the year due largely to the wear and tear of injuries.
In fact, injuries were the biggest problem facing the Falcons interior a year ago. Blalock missed his first snaps in six consecutive years last year with back problems early in the season. Asamoah was also bothered by a bad back late in the year and center Joe Hawley was lost for the year a month into the season with a knee injury.
Hawley is expected to return and will be the incumbent at the center position. But 2015 will be an important year for him due to the fact that the Falcons have yet to see Hawley solidify the spot for a complete season. Hawley replaced Peter Konz at center midway through the 2013 season and played fairly well down the stretch and was off to a solid start in 2014 before his knee injury hit. This year, Hawley will have to find a way to play at his previous levels for a full season, otherwise the Falcons might seek to move on next season. But if he can remain healthy, Hawley should shine in the blocking scheme. His hyper-aggressive playing style, which some would consider “dirty,” is tailor-made for a scheme that asks its blockers to cut block.
Due to these concerns over Blalock’s future and concerns about depth at the other two interior spots, the Falcons are likely to prioritize depth this offseason. More than likely, they’ll seek to find Blalock’s heir apparent in the draft. Ideally, they can draft a player that can “redshirt” his rookie year and then be plugged into the starting lineup in 2016 if need be.
Depth at center is less of a concern given the play of James Stone in Hawley’s absence last season. Stone should adapt well to the new blocking scheme, given his athleticism and mobility are his strongest attributes.
The polar opposite of that is Peter Konz, who is potentially on the bubble. Konz’s biggest weaknesses are his ability to block on the move and second level, something he’ll be asked to do quite a bit in the new scheme, whether he lines up at guard or center. But given the team’s lack of reliable depth, Konz is likely to be retained long enough to compete in training camp.
He’ll likely be pushed by Harland Gunn, who like Stone and Hawley possesses the athleticism and attitude to fit the scheme. Gunn’s lack of size won’t hurt him as much in the new scheme as it did in the previous one, and thus he could emerge as the team’s top guard option via competition.
But it’s unlikely that the team will rely on that possibility and could seek to add another experienced body at guard via free agency. Free agents such as Erik Pears, Will Montgomery, Paul McQuistan and Todd Herremans have connections to the new staff. All our older veterans on the wrong side of 30 and thus the Falcons may prefer to the more youthful option via the draft.
Given the team’s other needs across the roster, guard isn’t likely to be a high priority on draft day. But the positive aspect of the new zone-blocking scheme is that viable starters can often be found on the third day of the draft. Seventh-round picks like Maurice Hurt and J.R. Sweezy started games at guard for the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, respectively, when the Falcons’ current coaches were working those sidelines. The Falcons could seek to find success with a similar approach this April.