Finding the Fit: Offensive Guard
The Falcons need to add depth at guard, because relatively speaking the Falcons interior line is the weakest part of their front five. Left guard Justin Blalock has yet to live up to the high expectations he came in with as a second round pick in 2007. And right guard Harvey Dahl is a nasty guy, but his blocking ability isn’t exactly stellar.
It behooves the Falcons to at the very least add players that can push these guys.
Dahl missed the final four games of the season due to injury, and his replacement Quinn Ojinnaka certainly did not fill the void. The Falcons like Ojinnaka because he’s versatile, having played or at least gotten reps at every position in the front five. And while he gives good effort, he’s not athletic enough to play on the outside and not physical enough to play on the inside. He’s an asset to have in a pinch, but he easily becomes a liability and exposed with extended playing time.
The Falcons need to find a backup guard that can replace Ojinnaka, but also potentially push either starter in the near future. Dahl is a restricted free agent, but is expected back because he’s a Paul Boudreau favorite. Blalock is entering his contract year as well. So essentially both players should be expected to start this year, but I’m sure the Falcons will monitor both players closely this season in order to evaluate whether either deserve a long-term extension. So ideally, any player that the Falcons add needs to be able to start by his second year.
1. Strength – The Falcons need these guys to be able to push the pile and clear running lanes. Particularly on the left side where left tackle Sam Baker isn’t known for his road-grading abilities. A powerful left side run blocker could help offset that deficiency in Baker’s game.
2. Mean Streak – The Falcons like their blockers nasty, and that is a key component to success as a guard because you’re working in closer quarters than tackles, and also matching up against bigger stronger players. There are few successful guards that have the term “finesse” attached to their style of play.
3. Technique – All blockers need good technique, but I mention this because of the relatively short time limit on how quickly these guys might be asked to contribute. The Falcons can’t afford to draft a big blocker that lacks technique and will need two or three years to develop it. Instead, they need to target guys that are relatively polished in terms of their footwork and technique, so that they can immediately fill depth roles and potentially push starters from Day One.
4. Athleticism – Athleticism isn’t quite as important at guard as it is at tackle since you’re dealing with 300-pounders for the most part. But NFL defensvie tackles have steadily gotten more athletic over the past few decades, and you need athletes to match up with those players. Both Dahl and Blalock are former college tackles that weren’t athletic enough for the outside and moved inside in the pros. That is often the story for many of hte league’s starting guards. But still these players don’t have to be as athletic as their tackle counterparts, but certainly cannot be devoid of athleticism.
The consensus best guard in the class is an ideal fit for the Falcons. Idaho’s MIke Iupati is big, athletic, and plays left guard. Many think Iupati can potentially play tackle as well due to his mammoth size and athleticism (6’5″ 325). But because he played extensively at left guard at Idaho, that’s where he can make his quickest impact, as he did show some issues adjusting to play elsewhere on the line during the Senior Bowl week. Iupati is a big, massive run blocker that is good enough to push if not beat Blalock for the starting left guard spot as a rookie. He is the type of run blocker that could off-set Baker’s deficiency there as he develops. The only problem is that Iupati is so good that he may not be available when the Falcons pick. Rarely do guards go in the Top 20. Rarely do interior blockers go in the Top 20. In 2004, Shawn Andrews, and in 2001, Steve Hutchinson did. And Iupati has comparable upside as both players, so he may be off the board before the Falcons pick.
Most put Alabama’s Mike Johnson and Illinois’ Jon Asamoah as the next best guards in the draft. Johnson played mostly left guard during his career at Alabama, playing beside Andre Smith last year. He’s a strong run blocker, but isn’t the best pass protector. But he could help move the pile on the left side. Asamoah played the right side at Illinois, and is a fairly polished blocker. He’s not the strongest, but he’s fairly consistent.
Others that are highly ranked are Vladimir Ducasse (UMass), John Jerry (Ole Miss), Mitch Petrus (Arkansas), and Sergio Render (Virginia Tech).
Ducasse is a massive guard that played left tackle at UMass, but is too athletically limited to play there in the pros. So he’ll likely move inside. But he needs a lot of polish in terms of his technique and will take some time to adjust to his new position. But he’s known for a strong work ethic, so while he may not contribute much as a rookie, things should pick up starting in his second year.
Jerry played both right guard and right tackle at Ole Miss, and is Peria’s little brother. Jerry is probably a better fit inside, but is a powerful run blocker. He’s a sort of smashmouth type of run blocker that will need some work in pass protection.
Petrus is smaller than the rest, but he’s a physical player that played both guard positions at Arkansas. While he lacks the experience of playing center, his playing style I think could make him a potential option at that position down the road. He’s got mean streak and is a self-made player (former walk on that started off as a tight end). His potential to play all three interior spots may make him an asset.
Render is another big player and played both guard positions at Virginia Tech. Most of his experience came at right guard, but he made a nice transition to the left side as a Senior. He’s not the most polished player, but flashes good ability as a run blocker, is mean, and has the upside to be one of the better guards in the league if he can be coached up a bit more.
A player that I failed to mention in the tackle section is Virginia’s Will Baker. But it probably works out since many think Barker woudl be a better fit at guard. He’s big, and probably compares easily to former Cav blocker Brad Butler, who started for the Bills at right guard for two seasons before unexpectedly retiring earlier this week. Barker is a tough player, and his experience playing right tackle could make him an asset to have on the bench.
Two late round prospects to keep an eye on are Pitts’ John Malecki and Oklahoma’s Brian Simmons. If you could say someone in this draft is a Harvey Dahl clone, it would be Malecki. He is really nasty, and like Dahl it often borders on dirty, which I’m sure Boudreau would love. He’s undersized (listed at 6’2″ 285), which is why he has gone under the radar. His size indicates he may have to move to center, a position he hasn’t played yet. He’s a former defensive tackle that has made a good adjustment to guard. And he did a fairly impressive job blocking some of the tougher defensive tackle matchups he faced this year.
Simmons is impressive because he was born with a club foot, and to be able to be a starter one one of the premier programs in the league indicates his toughness. He replaced Duke Robinson at left guard this past year, after splitting time there and at right guard as a junior. He’s not big, but he’s tough, has a mean streak. And if the Falcons were looking for depth in the later rounds, he appears to have the mental makeup to fit Boudreau’s style as a reserve.
The Final Verdict
This is a fairly rich draft for interior players that could fit well in Atlanta. Obviously if Iupati is available he would be the ideal pick and fit with their first pick. But if the Falcons weren’t able to get him and forced to settle on some of the other guys available after the third round wouldn’t be a bad position to be in.
Johnson and Asamoah could sneak into the late second round since they are often listed as the next best guards to Iupati. But both Jerry and Ducasse could rank just as high on many teams boards because of their size and potential to move the pile.
Having both Jerry brothers on the roster would be pretty cool. And Petrus potential to play the pivot makes him attractive. But Render and Ducasse would also be solid pickups because of their run blocking potential and the fact that they could be starting by their second years.
And while Barker, Malecki, and Simmons aren’t ideal picks to be future starters by 2011, after the fifth round they could make solid backups. And are the types of players that like Clabo and Dahl can eventually work their ways into the starting lineup a few years down the road.
The Falcons have many options and it would be very disappointing if they didn’t land one of these players (or someone else like them) in this year’s draft.