The Atlanta Falcons made Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews their top selection in the 2014 NFL Draft last night, making a significant splash to upgrade their offensive line. Matthews brings a certain pedigree to the unit that has been certainly missing over the years, being the son of NFL great Bruce Matthews, and hailing from a football family that includes three active members in the NFL and more to come.
But with the selection of Matthews comes the question of where he will play immediately. The Falcons took him with the sixth overall pick, and given the track record under Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith, first-round picks are expected to play and start immediately. So where will Matthews wind up? We got our answer late last night from Jay Adams of Atlanta Falcons.com:
— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) May 9, 2014
This decision makes perfect sense. Matthews began his career at Texas A&M as a right tackle, starting his first 33 games there over the course of three years. The reason for that was largely due to the fact that across from him was Luke Joeckel, a three-time all-conference player, that ultimately was selected second overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Once Joeckel was in the pros, Matthews made a seamless transition to the left side and started 13 games there as a senior.
A similar transition will probably be made for Matthews in Atlanta, eventually. But he’ll be penciled in right away to play right tackle over the likes of Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson, Gabe Carimi or Ryan Schraeder.
While it could be argued that Matthews could potentially represent an upgrade at left tackle over Sam Baker given the latter’s erratic play over the past six seasons, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move Baker. Baker has played his entire career at left tackle dating back to his beginnings at USC a decade ago. When the Falcons moved him to right guard briefly in 2011, it was to disastrous results. While Baker could possibly kick over to the right tackle position, he’s a very unknown commodity there. And the Falcons don’t want to run the risk of him losing a battle to Holmes or someone else, and now have a $41 million anchor on the bench.
Frankly if for nothing else but to protect their investment, the Falcons won’t mess with Baker at left tackle in 2014. The hope will be that Baker will play at a level comparable to his performance in 2012, where he was a decent to good starter for most of the year. If that is the case and Matthews has a good rookie season at right tackle, then that would represent the best combination they could have at the tackle spots.
If Baker has a solid 2014, then he should be relatively safe for 2015. Per Over the Cap.com, Baker is set to count $7.3 million against the Falcons 2015 salary cap. If he is released, he will assume a dead money hit of $9.2 million, meaning the Falcons will take an extra $1.9 million hit on their cap if Baker is gone. If Baker is bad in 2014, then I believe the Falcons will eat that dead money and release him in order to plug Matthews in at left tackle. In that event, the Falcons would likely designate Baker a post-June 1 release, and potentially lower the amount of dead money they would have to eat in 2015. However if Baker is decent to good this season, he should be kept for 2015 with Matthews projected to take over in 2016.
2016 is really the first year in which the Falcons can cut Baker and not take a major cap penalty, as his release that offseason before June 2 could net them about $1.65 million in cap savings. So essentially Baker is playing for his job beyond this year.
That should give Matthews at least a year or two to acclimate himself to the NFL as a right tackle. Such a transition from right to left tackle is relatively common in the NFL. It’s expected that Joeckel will make that transition this year in Jacksonville. The Falcons did it in the past with Bob Whitfield manning the right tackle position for three seasons before taking over for long-time Falcon great Mike Kenn at left tackle. Jammal Brown, Michael Roos, Jordan Gross and Joe Staley are all recent examples of players that began at right tackle and made the eventual switch to the left side. If Matthews follows a similar career path as some of those players, the Falcons will extremely happy with this pick.