The team announced earlier today that they have cut guard Vince Manuwai. Manuwai joins Lofa Tatupu as the team’s lone two free agent signings this off-season, and now both players have been released within the opening week of training camp. Manuwai was expected to compete with Peter Konz and Garrett Reynolds for the right guard position. Manuwai sat out last season after spending eight seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The offensive line is likely to be the most contested offensive position group in camp. Unlike the other offensive positions, the Falcons aren’t currently set on their starting lineup. The brunt of the competition will come at the two weakest spots from a year ago: left tackle and right guard. Sam Baker is the incumbent at left tackle, although he remains a question mark because he was effectively benched last year after a very poor start to the season. Will Svitek replaced him and proved to be an upgrade. But the team remains optimistic about Baker’s abilities, excusing much of his struggles due to injuries. The team drafted rookie Lamar Holmes as well in the third round, and he’ll push for time as well. But by missing rookie mini-camps with a foot injury likely will have Holmes climbing an uphill battle in camp to gain the starting spot. More than likely the spot will come down to Baker or Svitek, with Baker having the advantage going into camp because he worked the majority of first team snaps in the off-season.
At right guard, the team could have a new face as two of their off-season additions will be competing there. Free agent pickup Vince Manuwai and top pick Peter Konz will be pushing for playing time behind Garrett Reynolds, who is considered the incumbent. Reynolds got the majority of first team snaps during OTAs, a small surprise given that Reynolds, like Baker, lost his job in 2011. He was replaced after a sluggish start by Joe Hawley, who was an improvement but only slightly over the second half of the season. Reynolds has struggled with extensive reps at the guard position largely due to his height, which is disadvantageous inside at guard. Manuwai worked mostly with the second unit during minicamps, and is the strongest candidate among the two to push for time. Konz played exclusively as a center during his days at Wisconsin, and split time between both spots this off-season. He still has a small learning curve at guard, and while he will be given a legitimate opportunity to win the starting spot, he’ll likely be on the outside looking in.
The other three roster spots are pretty much locked up as the team brought back center Todd McClure along with left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo. Blalock and Clabo won’t face any competition for their jobs, while McClure will be pushed by Hawley. McClure has never lost his starting spot in his 13-year career, so it doesn’t seem likely that he will do so this summer. But the Falcons will give Hawley a chance to emerge as the team wants to get more physical up front. Hawley was miscast as a guard last year, but his skillset is much more suited to playing the pivot where he is fiesty and physical. That sort of mentality will be welcomed at the center position. But he’s not nearly as polished as McClure and certainly lacks McClure’s extensive experience and knowledge calling out blocking assignments.
But even if players like Hawley, Konz, and Holmes don’t win starting positions, they are virtual locks to be among the final nine or ten blockers that could make the 53-man roster. Between Manuwai and Reynolds as well as Baker and Svitek, it doesn’t seem like a sure bet that all will make the roster if they don’t win the starting spot. Svitek is probably the most valuable as a reserve given his versatility to serve as swing tackle and potential blocking tight end.
Also vying for positions include former draftees Andrew Jackson and Mike Johnson. Johnson was a third round pick, but injuries have limited his development over the past two summers. He had the potential to win the starting gig from Reynolds last summer, but an untimely concussion forced him out of the lineup, allowing Reynolds the time to solidify the spot. Jackson will likely get a boost because the Falcons new position coach is his former head coach Pat Hill from Fresno State. The team has been working to cross-train both players for multiple positions to give them some potential added value. Both players have gotten reps at tackle this off-season. But both are fighting an uphill battle to make the roster certainly due to the more experienced players ahead of them. It is noteworthy that both players still remain eligible for the team’s practice squad, although it doesn’t seem likely at this point that either would clear waivers if released by the team.
Also competing in camp are undrafted rookies Bryce Harris, Tyler Horn, and Phillip Manley. All three are longshots to make the roster, but can certainly impress enough to make bids for the practice squad. Harris also followed Hill from Fresno State, but is facing long odds given the added depth at the tackle position. A bit undersized, Harris is an ideal candidate to be placed on the practice squad for a year or two to add some bulk. Horn is stuck behind a relatively deep center group in Atlanta, as he is fourth on the depth chart. And the fact that Hawley and Konz add the versatility of also playing guard, it will make it that much harder for Horn to stand out. Manley offers good size for a guard, but he too is stuck behind a bunch of bodies.
Mike Smith has stressed trying to bolster competition in camp, and very few positions embody that mentality than the offensive line. Its struggles a year ago precipitate that renewed focus on getting the best players on the field. And while the majority of the team’s starting positions are likely settled, there will be a maelstrom brewing as players compete for second unit spots and their football-playing lives. Predicting who the final nine or ten will be on the roster is the most tenuous of any position group. Three of the starters (Blalock, Clabo, and McClure) and three reserves (Hawley, Holmes, and Konz) are fairly safe bets. But beyond that, the last handful of spots will be completely up for grabs.
I’ve already discussed how Michael Turner’s play this year will be a key to success for the Falcons in 2012. Tied to that is the play of the offensive line. It’s clear that the Falcons are a team that pride themselves on being an effective to good running team. And that notion isn’t likely to change under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The Jaguars under Jack Del Rio styled themselves in a similar manner, being a team that could run the ball well and play good defense, i.e. often the core elements of what is called being “physical.” That’s the exact sort of mentality and identity that Mike Smith has tried to instill here in Atlanta over the past four seasons. And it’s probably one of the main reasons why Smith was attracted to Koetter to take over for Mike Mularkey.
But joining Koetter on his quest to reinvigorate the Falcons offense on the ground will be new offensive line coach Pat Hill. Hill comes to the Falcons after years as the head coach at Fresno State. The Falcons hope Hill’s brand of high energy and toughness will also prove a boost up front.
It was clear last year that the biggest weakness on the offense was the offensive line. They struggled to create holes for Turner to run through, and struggled protecting Matt Ryan when they faced quality pass rushes. While the team may be very vocal about not regretting the decision to trade for Julio Jones, they certainly should be regretful over how they took the offensive line for granted last off-season.
Too often the line got manhandled in 2011 and it often occurred in instances where they could not establish the run early in games. If they got behind the offense would become one-dimensional and lose its balance. And several opposing teams were able to take advantage by pinning their ears back and be effective at getting to Matt Ryan.
Ryan is not a quarterback that likes to get hit. That isn’t questioning his toughness, but there is plenty of evidence over the past four years that if teams can get to him early and often, it can affect his play the rest of the game. That could also describe Tom Brady rather easily. So it’s prohibitive of Ryan becoming a top quarterback, it’s just an obstacle to overcome. You can live with a subpar O-line in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger behind center because he seems to thrive at times with pressure in his face. But that won’t be the case here in Atlanta, and thus emphasizing better play up front will remain important as long as Ryan is the starter.
Thus the Falcons off-season decisions to bolster the competition up front were good moves. The team needed to improve their blocking, and they did so by adding veteran guard Vince Manuwai and drafting rookies Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes in the draft.
Two of the more memorable moments of the Falcons 2011 season were their futile attempts in short-yardage during their Week 10 overtime loss against the New Orleans Saints and against the New York Giants in the opening round of the playoffs. Well it appears the Falcons have taken steps in the 2012 draft to correct those issues, by using their two picks on the second day of the draft on a pair of beefy offensive linemen. Wisconsin center Peter Konz was the Falcons second round pick (55th overall) and Southern Miss tackle Lamar Holmes was taken in the third (91st overall).
For more than a decade, center Todd McClure has been a fixture as the anchor of the Falcons offensive line. McClure, undersized by NFL standards at 6’1? 296 pounds, could potentially give way to the 6’5? 314-pound Konz in the future. Holmes standing at 6’5? 323, also is considerably larger than either of the men he could potentially replace in the future at left tackle: Sam Baker (6’5? 301) and Will Svitek (6’6? 308). Earlier this off-season, the team also signed free agent guard Vince Manuwai, who sports a 6’2″ 333-pound frame, the bulkiest on the team.
Konz is expected to immediately compete with Manuwai for the vacant right guard spot. Both McClure and Manuwai’s contract expire after the season, and it’s possible Konz could kick inside to center. Or he could potentially remain at right guard if Joe Hawley continues to improve. Holmes should be in the potential three-way competition at left tackle, but likely will be expected to fill in as the team’s swing tackle. With Tyson Clabo entrenched on the right side, that could mean that Baker and Svitek could be competing for a single roster spot this summer.
If the Falcons don’t manage to get push this upcoming season, it won’t be because they lack the beef to do so. It appears that the Falcons are planning on recommitting themselves to running the football this year, and in the future. But the added bodies via the draft, certainly will shake up competition and presumably at this point in time only McClure, Justin Blalock, and Clabo are assured roster spots among the incumbents. The rest of the lineup could be in a state of flux.
Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reportsthat the Falcons have signed offensive guard Vince Manuwai. Manuwai played eight seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, including under coaches Mike Smith and Dirk Koetter.
He sat out the 2011 season after showing up overweight following the NFL lockout last summer. Previously, Manuwai spent eight seasons with Jaguars, starting a total of 105 games after being a 3rd round pick in 2003. He played almost exclusively left guard during his career with the Jaguars, although he did get some work on the right side of the line during mini-camps prior to the 2010 season. He missed all but one game in 2008 due to a torn ACL suffered in the season opener. After that point, he started to have issues with his weight. He suffered a torn tendon in his foot late in the 2010 season, which prevented him from getting into shape headed into the 2011. Manuwai played in Hawaii’s heavy passing attack during his college career, but adapted himself well to run blocking in the NFL as he played under Jack Del Rio.
Manuwai could potentially be penciled as the Falcons current starter at the right guard position, a problem area throughout the 2011 season.