Should Falcons Be Concerned About Jake Matthews?

It was quite the revelation in January when ESPN’s Vaughn McClure reported that Atlanta Falcons offensvie tackle Jake Matthews was recovering from a lisfranc injury to his foot. Matthews had been nicked up throughout his rookie season with the Falcons, but the word “lisfranc” is dreaded among NFL circles. That is often due to the variable lengths of time to recover from the injury, and lack of recovery altogether in some cases.

Notable lisfranc injuries to past Falcons include wide receiver Julio Jones, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and cornerback Von Hutchins. Jones suffered his injury in September 2013, which cost him the rest of the season and returned healthy in 2014 to have a big season. Jones was cleared to participate at the start of July 2014’s training camp, but the Falcons were cautious with his return by not throwing too many reps his way.

Weatherspoon suffered his lisfranc injury earlier in the 2013 during the team’s Week 2 win over the St. Louis Rams. He would eventually go on the team’s “short term” injured reserve and wouldn’t return to practice until November 6, missing a total of 51 days due to the injury. But Weatherspoon himself noted the relative luck he had with the injury that didn’t force him to have season-ending surgery. Weatherspoon would eventually suffer a knee injury after his return to the lineup, missing the last two games of 2013.

Hutchins is probably the scariest case, since he had surgery to repair a lisfranc injury in late July 2008 at the outset of training camp. Hutchins was expected to miss up to six months as he recovered from the broken foot. However, he missed minicamps in May 2009 (over nine months after the initial injury) and was still limited at the outset of training camp three months later. Hutchins would eventually be cut by the Falcons at the end of camp and would never suit up for another NFL team since.

Obviously, things appear a lot more optimistic for Matthews than they were for Hutchins. Expectations all along have been that Matthews would be ready for training camp when it begins in late July this summer. Falcons new head coach Dan Quinn made sure to note Matthews’ participation when the team began voluntary offseason workouts earlier this month.

But one thing to note is the fact that the Falcons have yet to release former starting left tackle Sam Baker, opting instead to cut guard Justin Blalock at the outset of the offseason. Between the two, one could make a compelling case for Baker being released over Blalock.

In terms of cap issues, Blalock was the smarter release. That move saved the Falcons over $4 million in cap savings. The Falcons would have incurred an extra $2 million hit to their cap had they tried to release Baker back in February. However, the team could have designated him a post-June 1 cut in March, and saved close to $3 million in cap space. But still the increased savings and ease of which it came to releasing Blalock made that move more sensible at least from a cap standpoint.

But Blalock has also been very durable throughout his career. Blalock missed a total of 111 snaps due to injury in 2014, with those being the first 111 snaps he had missed since his rookie year in 2007. The plays that Blalock missed as a rookie came due to being benched late in the year thanks to poor play, not from injury.

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Sam Baker leaves the field in 2014 with knee injury

On the other hand, Baker has frequently missed playing time. He managed to play the entire season’s workload in both 2010 and 2012, but in his other five seasons, he missed a total of 3,823 snaps due to various injuries to his back, ankles and knees, including all 1,102 of the snaps in 2014 . Over the course of his seven-year career, Baker has managed to play just 53 percent of the team’s total snaps.

And while it was well known that Blalock was less than an ideal fit as a guard in the Falcons’ new zone-blocking scheme, that doesn’t mean that Baker is that much better. While he played in a zone-blocking scheme during his days at Southern California similar to the one that is being installed by new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Baker has done little in his career to suggest that he’s capable of playing the guard position. His lone appearance there in the pros came in 2011 and is was a disastrous performance. Prior to that, Baker had not lined up at the position since his redshirt year in 2003 at USC.

Given his questionable durability and lack of experience, Baker is a big question mark as far as the guard position goes. Even considering his fit as a square peg, Blalock is a lot more trustworthy asset at the guard position for the Falcons in 2015.

That of course begs the question whether or not the primary reason why the Falcons have decided to keep Baker is not because of his potential value as a guard, rather because of his potential to be an insurance policy at left tackle should Matthews suffer any complications in his recovery from his foot injury.

While Ryan Schraeder has experience as a left tackle, his move to that side of the ball should Matthews be limited in 2015 would force the team to start Lamar Holmes at right tackle. Holmes is an even bigger square peg in the new scheme than Blalock. He is a player that is firmly on the roster bubble as of right now.

Should Matthews’ recovery be delayed or suffer any complications in the coming months, there would be legitimate concern that the Falcons roster as is, might be inadequate to deal with his absence. Thus, it makes for a more compelling reason why the Falcons might be keeping Baker on the roster.

The Falcons can still cut Baker before training camps begin this summer. And should the Falcons use a high draft pick on a player that can immediately push for the starting left guard spot, it’ll make Baker’s hold on a roster spot even more tenuous. Then, Baker’s only real value to the team will be as a swing tackle behind both Matthews and Schraeder.

But Baker’s 2015 cap hit of $7.3 million is exceedingly large for a player that will only be viewed as a backup. Thus, the Falcons only recourse will be to either cut Baker in June or to restructure his contract.

Baker’s outright release within the next two months will be a telling sign about the team’s confidence in Matthews’ recovery. However, if the Falcons choose to keep Baker after June, it might be an even stronger indicator that the team is a bit more concerned about the recovery of their second-year franchise left tackle.

With the draft yet to unfold and the team still in a position to make roster moves in May and/or June, it’s still a bit too early to have any real concern about Matthews. But as the coming weeks unfold, there may be reason to have growing concern.

Questions surrounding Matthews’ recovery don’t even run the full gamut of concerns involving the second-year player. Many have questioned whether Matthews’ on-field play should be the bigger concern than his injury. Matthews was the lowest graded offensive tackle according to Pro Football Focus in 2014, earning a horrific -36.8 grade from the premium website.

At this point, I think much of those issues are overblown. A good deal why Matthews was so poorly graded was thanks to poor run-blocking grades. Some of that should be alleviated by the Falcons’ move to zone-blocking, which places less emphasis on an individual blocker’s ability to “move” the pile. One of Matthews’ bigger weaknesses I noted in his scouting report a year ago was his lack of ideal strength to generate power in a short area. However, Matthews has the quickness, mobility and technique to be a prototypical left tackle in a zone-blocking scheme. Shortly after last year’s draft, I wrote another article discussing how Matthews, among other Falcons blockers, were far better fits in that scheme than the man-blocking scheme the Falcons had employed from 2008 to 2013.

Yet, even if there is a dramatic improvement to Matthews’ run-blocking in 2015, there still leaves concerns about his pass protection. After all, he still earned a -19.1 grade in that arena from Pro Football Focus, ranking him 82nd among 84 offensive tackles.

However to be fair to Matthews, a good chunk of that was generated over a four-game span where he was clearly not healthy. From Weeks Five through Eight, Matthews’ combined pass protection grade was -16.8. Meaning that for the rest of the season, his pass protection grade was -2.3. Extrapolating that for an entire 15-game slate, a healthy Matthews presumably would have posted a pass protection grade of -3.1 for 2014. That would have put him just slightly behind Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady (-2.9) and ranking near the middle of the pack (45th out of 84) league-wide.

As I made frequent notes throughout the four-game slump in my weekly game reviews, Matthews’ bum ankle really made him ineffective against what amounted to be a murderer’s row of pass-rushers: Jason Pierre-Paul, Jared Allen, Terrell Suggs and Ziggy Ansah in those weeks.

As I particularly noted against the Bears where Allen was very effective at using his bull rush to beat Matthews routinely in the second half of that game, Matthews is a player that has had the bulk of his success up until now derive from his outstanding footwork and balance rather than being a “mauler” thanks to a strong upper body and great hands. With a foot or ankle injury, Matthews’ greatest strength was turned into a weakness, which is why he proved so ineffective over that four-game span.

Once given a bit more time to heal after the bye, Matthews’ play picked up considerably, receiving positive pass-protection grades from Pro Football Focus in four of the last five games.

Of course given that Matthews is currently recovering from a foot injury, it does beg the question that if he has a prolonged recovery, it could once again affect his on-field play. Thus we circle back to the concern over Matthews’ prognosis in the near future.

Once again, Falcon fans will have to be in a wait and see mode and hope that Matthews’ recovery is more in line with Jones, meaning he’s poised for a breakout year as opposed to other past Falcons. If he can get healthy, I for one am optimistic that can and will happen.

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Aaron Freeman
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