I’m counting down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s continue with 8th-ranked player: offensive guard Justin Blalock.
To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.
Total Score: 78/100
Last year’s rank: 10
Player Grade: 69/100
Teams he is starter: 29 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 18 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3
Blalock’s ranking increased simply from the fact that he is coming off one of the better seasons he’s had in a Falcon uniform. Blalock’s solid 2013 season probably looks better in comparison considering many of the other Falcons blockers were especially bad. But Blalock’s play in 2013 was an uptick in his play over at least the two previous seasons, where he struggled to make an impact.
At least in the early going of the season, Blalock was one of the few Falcons blockers playing at a high level. His production dipped a bit over the final month of the season, when the blocking as a whole took a significant step back. Blalock only generated one key block over the final four games, after tallying 9.5 in the previous 12. He also gave up 3.5 of his total 4.5 sacks allowed in the final fives games of the 2013 season. There were also five hurries allowed in the final three games, with 8.5 total for the season.
But Blalock should be expected to bounce back this year and play at a level comparable to his play through the first three-quarters of 2013. He should be helped by a healthy return of left tackle Sam Baker, as well as the fact that the team should have an upgrade at right guard in Jon Asamoah. Typically, NFL teams slide their protections the left, leading the center to help out the left guard moreso than the right one. With Asamoah being capable of being left on an island at right guard, that should allow Blalock more help on his side.
That slide in protection is one of the reasons why I wanted the Falcons to prioritize re-signing Harvey Dahl over Blalock back in 2011. That and the fact that Dahl was simply a better run blocker. While Blalock was a better pass protector than Dahl, he got the benefit of receiving more help from the center due to the slide in protections. So when grading on a curve, the two came out about even in that area.
And I won’t deny that there has been some bitterness on my end in regard to Blalock since then. While an effective player, Blalock has rarely been great. But after last season, some of my bitterness has gone away. Blalock was clearly the only blocker among the Falcons starting five that could reliably go against a quality opponent and not get absolutely destroyed. While Blalock may still be slightly overpaid, he’s still an effective player that belongs in the starting lineup. And over the course of his seven seasons with the Falcons, he’s proven that more times than not.
The big concern for Blalock headed into 2014 is whether he can maintain that level of play since he’s now on the wrong side of age 30. If not, then he may face release in 2015. His cap hit blossoms to $7.91 million in 2015, and the Falcons could potentially reap the benefits of roughly $3.8 million in cap space by releasing him then. Similar to Baker, Blalock needs to play well enough this season that the Falcons don’t see such savings as worthwhile.
However unlike Baker, Blalock is much more likely to achieve that. At his worst, Blalock is still at least a competent starting guard in contrast to Baker, who has been one of the least effective tackles in the NFL when he’s playing poorly. Blalock has also been very durable, as he has not missed a snap in six consecutive seasons, which has definitely not been the case with Baker.
In the end, there’s a decent to good chance that if there is no significant drop-off in play from Blalock, he’ll be able to play out the life of his contract with the Falcons through 2016, when he could potentially retire at age 33.