Todd McClure hasn’t just been a Falcon, but he’s been an institution. He’s started 169 games during ten and a half seasons as the Falcons starting center. Backups have come and gone during his career, unable to nudge him out of his role.
Whispers of retirement have surrounded McClure for a few seasons now, but he has indicated that he does not plan on slowing down anytime soon. He’ll be 35 years old when his contract is up after the season. And the Falcons will have an interesting decision to make if McClure intends to keep on playing.
He can look at Casey Wiegmann for inspiration, who is the longest-tenured active offensive lineman in the league, with 211 games played in since 1997. The Kansas City Chiefs let go of Wiegmann three years ago due to his age, and he followed with two solid seasons with division rival Denver. And because the Chiefs had not adequately replaced him, he came back this past year to Kansas City and helped improve their struggling offensive line. The Chiefs used a second round pick on Florida State’s Rodney Hudson to prevent making the same mistake again.
The Falcons hope they already haven’t made that mistake, when they took Joe Hawley in the fourth round of last year’s draft. Hawley is clearly being groomed as McClure’s replacement. He hopes to fare a little better than Jeff Van Note’s replacement, Wayne Radloff. After the Falcons got seventeen great seasons from Van Note, Radloff, a Georgia alum and former USFL player, only last three as the team’s starting center.
Hawley’s draft selection caused a number of Falcon fans to scratch their heads, due to their perception that better centers were available at that point in the 2010 NFL draft. But Hawley’s play during last preseason quickly quieted them. He showcase a similar tenacity and toughness that helped propel McClure to such a long NFL career. Hawley even got some reps in the season finale against the Carolina Panthers, although he did not do much with it.
But it’s likely due to the durability of McClure, that Hawley’s play in the preseason will be pivotal to the coaches determining whether he’s ready to be the successor at center. He’s unlikely to get opportunities during the regular season. It’s not that McClure doesn’t get injured, he just manages to play through them. He injured his knee in the second quarter of the Week 9 matchup against Tampa Bay, but only missed a single snap before returning to the game.
With limited opportunities such as that, it means that Hawley will need to showcase his talents during the summer in order to inspire the type of confidence needed for the Falcons brass to be willing to let go of McClure.
Like McClure, Hawley isn’t the biggest guy out there. But he makes up for it with toughness and mean streak, and plays with very good pop and leverage off the snap. He’s not a center that is going to move piles. But at the center position it’s less about moving piles than it is about getting position and maintaining blocks. Redirecting defensive tackles so that they lose gap responsibility and taking out middle linebackers to spring runners on the second level is the name of the game for centers, and the Falcons are no different. This is a trait and skill that Hawley has flashed during the preseason, and if he shows more progress this summer, then the Falcons decision at the end of the season should be made much easier.
If McClure does intend to play fifteen seasons in the NFL, he might have to finish his career elsewhere than Atlanta due to the emergence of Hawley.