In the first part, we spent the bulk of the conversation discussing what the Falcons could or should do to address their need at left tackle. But not to be overlooked are the potential open holes on the interior at center and right guard.
While the Falcons have somewhat of an answer at center in Joe Hawley, they might not be completely comfortable entrusting the gig to him. It would be smart to bring in at least a veteran that can function as a reserve if not a direct competitor for the job. The team could also opt sign an established veteran that could definitely land the job because there is a strong group of free agents this off-season. Chris Myers (Houston), Scott Wells (Green Bay), Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis), Dan Koppen (New England), Andre Gurode (Baltimore). and Nick Hardwick (San Diego) headline the list of candidates.
Myers is likely to land a lucrative contract around $50 or so million that makes him one of the more highly paid centers in the league. Wells also being one of the younger options is likely to land a lucrative deal from Green Bay or another team on the market. Although he’ll probably be had for a slightly cheaper price than Myers.
Saturday is possibly a future Hall of Famer, but he may opt to retire this off-season. And while he would definitely be a great stopgap for a year or two in Atlanta, it would seem counter-intuitive given the Falcons desires to get younger. Koppen is no spring chicken, as he’ll turn 33 at the start of the 2012 season. He’s missed all but the first half of the Patriots Week 1 opener with a broken ankle. Although initial reports indicated that Koppen would only miss 4 months due to the injury, which would mean that he could be 100% by now or nearly there. He’s been a mainstay in New England since 2003, and it’ll be interesting to see if they let him walk.
Gurode played the bulk of this past year at left guard for the Ravens, after the Cowboys cut him this past summer. He’ll turn 33 in March and would definitely add a physical element up front. His ability to play guard or center could make an attractive target, but the Falcons definitely won’t break the bank to sign him.
Hardwick is also considering retirment, thanks in large part due to the issues that teammate Kris Dielman suffered due to concussion-related seizures. Hardwick is still relatively young, as he’ll be 31 when the season starts. He has been under the radar over most of his career in San Diego, rarely getting the accolades of others, but being a consistently good starter up front. If he still wants to play for a few more years, and departs San Diego he could be an option for Atlanta.
But if the Falcons don’t go after one of these bigger names, then someone such as Jamey Richard (Colts), Tony Wragge (Rams), Scott Mruczkowski (Chargers), or Geoff Hangartner (Panthers) who are serviceable reserves with some starting experience that could compete directly with Hawley, and be much cheaper options.
At right guard, the Falcons are probably a bit more likely to spend some big money than they are at center. Garrett Reynolds struggled early in the season, and Hawley was clearly outmatched for the job the rest of the way. While the team might hope that Mike Johnson can make a healthy return and push for the job, they should probably move forward under the expectation that Johnson is no longer a viable long-term option.
Carl Nicks is the top free agent, and most suspect he’ll price himself out of New Orleans. That would mean of course that if the Falcons pursue him, they would have to spend the cash to lure him here. It’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons can keep some of their own prominent free agents and also afford to make a strong play for Nicks. He would definitely beef up the Falcons interior and give them the sort of right guard that could push the pile as well as keep Matt Ryan’s jersey cleaner.
The next name on the list is Ben Grubbs, who is a solid to good guard for the most part. Grubbs will also be an expensive option, but as a Georgia native, might come somewhat cheaper than Nicks. What he lacks in size compared to Nicks, he makes up for with athleticism.
Philadelphia’s Evan Mathis is also a player that could find his bank account enhanced this off-season. He’s coming off a good year in Philadelphia, after spending years as a journeyman and backup mostly. He probably won’t be as expensive as either Nicks or Grubbs, making him arguably the best bang for your buck if he can reproduce his production in Philadelphia here in Atlanta.
Other options include Tennessee’s Jake Scott, who has been a steady, yet unspectacular starter for the Titans over the years. He’ll turn 31 this off-season, and really only makes sense if the Falcons cannot get one of the bigger names.
The rest of the class isn’t really filled with anybody that really makes the needle move, and the Falcons would probably be better off targeting options in the draft if they were not able to snag one of these four options at guard. It is a fairly deep class of guards for this draft, and subsequently the Falcons may try to find their long-term answer there.
That might be the best plan for the Falcons: get immediate help at left tackle via free agency, but still try to cultivate a young guy at right guard if they cannot afford one of the premier free agents. Either way, you can expect some substantial additions to the Falcons offensive line to try and bolster this unit for 2012 and beyond.