Continuing the countdown of the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, let’s break down the seventh best player in offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
To read about the methodology in how these rankings came about, you can click here.
Total Score: 76/100
Last year’s rank: 14th
Player Grade: 60/100
Teams he is starter: 30 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 12 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +5
Positional Bonus: +4
Considering how many consider Matthews to be coming off a bad rookie season, it might be a surprise to see him rank so highly.
But as I’ve explained before, the rating/ranking system I’ve developed tends to give a bump to offensive linemen. That’s because there simply aren’t enough good blockers to meet the demand. A relatively deep position such as wide receiver might potentially have 80 or so quality starting-caliber players spread in the league.
Yet there are 160 linemen that have starting jobs in the NFL; so even if there were a comparable amount, half the starting blockers in the NFL could be considered underwhelming. Thus many teams tend to make do with at least two or three mediocre blockers in starting positions.
The point is that a decent offensive lineman can go a long way in this league. And that certainly is the case for a player like Matthews, even given some of his struggles last year.
But as I’ve explained previously, much of Matthews’ struggles last year came thanks to an abundance of injury rather than a lack of ability. During the first and last months of the season when Matthews was mostly healthy, his performances on the field were more than comparable to the relatively small number of blockers that could be considered good in this league.
The key for that trend to continue is for Matthews to leave the trainer’s table behind him. There are of course concerns about that since he missed the majority of the offseason recovering from a lisfranc foot injury that he suffered at the end of 2014. Those injuries are notoriously difficult to heal, but so far this summer, Matthews hasn’t had much issue with it. The Falcons hope that continues into the regular season and beyond.
The Falcons’ move to a zone-blocking scheme this season should only enhance Matthews’ potential in 2015. Never an ideal fit for the more physical style of play that the team’s blocking scheme demanded under the previous coaching staff, Matthews suffered as a run-blocker.
He’s never been a player that relied on strength or power to defeat and control opposing defensive linemen, instead relying on superb footwork and technique to win in the trenches. The latter two skills are ideal for the Falcons’ new blocking scheme since it will ask him to get out on the move, cut block and seal off cutback lanes for runners on the second level.
The zone-blocking scheme is essentially more about getting in the way of a defender to create lanes for running backs than it is about moving guys several yards off the ball.
Another reason for why Matthews is so highly ranked is due to his youth. He’s really only scratching the surface of his ability and should he manage to have the longevity of other quality left tackles in the NFL, he could easily play another decade or longer.
But that longevity is once again tied to health. Matthews only has to look at another tackle named Jake to see how much injuries can take a toll on one’s career. Jake Long was one of the league’s elite blockers his first few years in the league, but has struggled with various injuries over the past several years and after seven seasons may be close to calling it a career.
Former Falcons blocker Sam Baker is another example. While Baker was never quite on the same level of ability as Matthews, there’s little reason he should be on the verge of retirement at age 30. Peak-age for a quality offensive tackle can be considered to be around 34.
The hope is that unlike Long and Baker, Matthews’ battle with the injury bug will soon be a thing of the past. If so, then it’s very likely that he’ll be able to quiet any detractors that question whether he deserves such lofty praise.