Should the Falcons draft an Offensive Lineman?

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OT Sam Baker

I keep seeing a bunch of mocks having the Falcons take an offensive linemen in the first round of the draft, and frankly from where I’m sitting, I think the odds are very, very, very low that happens. In fact, I think the odds are fairly low that the Falcons will take an offensive lineman at any point in the draft, let alone the first round. And I’ll explain why, and much of it has to do with the labor strife the league is currently undergoing.

I’m not certain what is going to become of the CBA labor situation the rest of this week or going forward. But let’s look at both scenarios: (1) the pessimistic one where a lockout occurs and there is essentially no player movement between now and the draft and afterwards. And (2) the optimistic one in that a new CBA gets hammered out at some point in the next seven weeks before the draft and that we get some semblance of free agency and a relatively normal off-season. How does either scenario affect the Falcons offensive line situation?

We know that Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, and Justin Blalock all had their contracts expire at the end of the 2010 season. The Falcons quickly were able to re-sign reserve Will Svitek last week, getting him locked up for two more seasons as a Falcon. But those three players that aren’t yet signed represent 60% of the Falcons starting lineup, and arguably the best 60%. Clabo landed a Pro Bowl bid this year, and Harvey Dahl quietly had a second solid year in a Falcon uniform. And even Justin Blalock, the player I thought going into this season was the weakest link of the front five improved his play, and arguably was our most consistent blocker over the second half of the season.

Under the first pessimistic scenario, what does that mean for the Falcons three big free agents? Well if there is no CBA, there is no free agency or trades between now and the draft and probably for a significant period of time afterwards. Let’s say that we get into the late summer or early Fall before a deal is struck. If a free agency period occurs at that point in time, it will be very limited, let’s say a week or so long before teams are supposed to start shortened camps and/or get into the regular season games. That likely means most teams solving their major needs via the draft, leading to there being less big money to go around to prospective free agents.  Nobody is going to spend $80 million on Albert Haynesworth or Julius Peppers or Nate Clements in September like they would in March. Coupled with a very brief time in which players that do decide to change teams can get up to speed and acclimated to new environments and systems, it will likely cause a lot of free agents to re-sign with their old teams. It will also cause those same old teams that might have been a bit more willing in March to let their players walk to want to keep them since they will need players ready to play and produce as soon as possible with a shortened camp/season thrust upon them.

So in such a scenario, doesn’t it dramatically increase the odds that the Falcons keep all three of their free agents? So do the Falcons really have to fear losing any of their starters if there is a prolonged lockout? I think the answer is no.

What about the optimistic scenario? Well, you have to think that if free agency is soon to be upon us, the Falcons will work hard right off the bat to strike a deal with Clabo. Sure, there should be other suitors out there. But the facts are that teams don’t pay huge dollars for right tackles. The premium on left tackles is extremely high, but not so much on right tackles. It’s why the vast majority of starting right tackles are homegrown talent mined in the middle of the draft. Another team is unlikely to value Clabo at a much higher level than the Falcons currently do to price him out of Atlanta.

As for Dahl, he’s likely to remain a Falcon. While Dahl isn’t universally beloved by the fan base, he is an integral part of what they do up front. He’s not the team’s best blocker, but anybody that has paid close attention to how the Falcons play upfront should know that he’s the guy that makes the unit go in the running game. When he and Ovie Mughelli are playing well, the Falcons are one of the best running teams in the league. When that is not the case, they are middling. That doesn’t make Dahl a great player, but he has significant value for the Falcons, and the Falcons front office recognize that so they would be quick to reward him with a contract extension just after they finish with Clabo if not sooner. One has to remember that Dahl is the one guy starting for the team that was essentially hand-picked by Paul Boudreau back in 2008 to be a starter. So as long as Boudreau is around, it’s highly likely that Dahl is going to have a role with the Falcon team.

Like Clabo, Dahl is likely to get offers on the open market should he hit it, but teams aren’t going to pay him Steve Hutchinson money, so it’s unlikely he will be priced out of Atlanta.

The only real major question mark is Blalock. Again, his play down the stretch I think merits his return in Atlanta under the hopes that he’s finally turned the corner as a consistent player. But the team drafted Mike Johnson in the third round for a reason, because it wanted an option in case they chose not to re-sign Blalock this year. And while Blalock could/should be brought back at a relatively modest price, Johnson’s presence gives the team an excuse to pinch their pennies and go in a new direction at that spot. The team also seems to like Garrett Reynolds, and a competition between him and Johnson in camp should be able to settle the hole at left guard.

So even in this optimistic scenario, the Falcons don’t really have to worry about keeping the band together, so to speak, because they’ve already had a contingency plan in place for almost a full year now.

So the question then becomes does the team make a move at one of the other two spots in the draft to try and upgrade those spots. And I think the answer is no.

The Falcons don’t need a center because of Joe Hawley. While many Falcon fans were upset with that pick, Hawley had a strong preseason and I think he’s going to be a solid center for the Falcons for years to come. Todd McClure is coming back for one last season, and the center position seems pretty secure at this point in time with a capable vet and a developing youngster on the roster.

That leaves left tackle as the only problem spot. And a problem it was indeed. Sam Baker struggled throughout this year. He’s not nearly as bad as people sometimes exaggerate him to be, but there is certainly significant cause for concern after a relatively promising 2009 season. The problem with Baker is that he’s not a great fit for the Falcons scheme. He should be a player in a zone-heavy blocking scheme rather than a more power-oriented man blocking scheme like the Falcons employ the majority of the time.

But the truth as I see it is that the Falcons aren’t that worried about Baker that they are going to replace him right away. Baker has two years left on his contract, so there is still a chance he is a salvageable left tackle. People should remember that Matt Light (who Baker is often compared to) struggled early in his career, and never developed into an elite left tackle but has been more than serviceable when it comes to protecting Tom Brady’s blindside. And I think the Falcons have a similar hope for Baker going forward. The premium is so high at left tackle and it’s so difficult to get a really good one that you can live with an average stopgap for a few years before the stars align for you to find that franchise guy. That makes someone like Baker essentially the “Kyle Orton” of left tackles.

Thomas Dimitroff is a needs-based drafter. He’s going to draft guys that fill specific niches. And while Baker isn’t a stellar left tackle, it’s highly unlikely that any rookie is going to come into camp and beat him for his starting job right off the bat, especially in a draft year where there aren’t a ton of stellar left tackle prospects at the top of the draft. There’s no Bryan Bulaga in this draft class that can be had at the end of the first round and is an obvious upgrade over Baker. And the Falcons usually devote their first round picks to guys that they think are going to start right away. And with the team keeping Svitek, the niche for a backup isn’t really open, especially when you consider the team still has a developing Jose Valdez on the roster. So anybody they draft is going to have to come in right away and beat out Svitek and show an ability to play both tackle spots fairly well his first summer. Again, a low probability.

So while the Falcons could use some more depth up front, including someone to push Baker for his starting job, it’s not a real need. It’s likely that anybody they draft early will be like Johnson as  a rookie and not play. And with the Falcons needs on defense and trying to become more explosive on the offensive side of the ball, it’s likely their early and middle round picks will be devoted to those areas. And once the end of the draft rolls around, a guy from the fifth or sixth round probably isn’t a good bet to unseat guys like Svitek, Reynolds, or Valdez from their roster spots. Especially when that draft pick can be used to shore up depth at a position that needs it.

So if it comes down to the Falcons going through all seven rounds of the draft and not taking a single offensive linemen come April I don’t think any fan should be upset.

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Aaron Freeman
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