The biggest concern emerging from the Atlanta Falcons 32-7 preseason loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday was the injury to left tackle Sam Baker.
Baker tore his patellar tendon in his right knee and is out for the season. It likely marks the end of Baker’s career as a Falcon.
The team drafted Jake Matthews to be their left tackle of the future and after Baker’s injury, the future is now.
There is a part of me that is glad the Falcons will be able to liberate themselves from Baker’s terrible contract, but at the same time, there is a larger part of me that is distraught that it had to end this way.
While Matthews’ presence made Baker the most expendable of their five projected starters, it does not mean that the Falcons won’t lose something.
That is because the Falcons may be forced to play either Lamar Holmes or Ryan Schraeder in the starting lineup this season. And thus far based off their play in the preseason, neither have shown any strong inclination that they are prepared for such an assignment.
Holmes has not been the outright liability he was at times last summer and for large portions of the 2013 season. But he has not played exceptionally well, and much of his problems stem not from a lack of ability, but from a lack of technique.
Holmes can be an effective pass-protector thanks largely to his size that makes him difficult to get around for some edge-rushers. But Holmes often negates his size and strength advantage with poor technique, losing leverage because he has a tendency to bend his waist. This leads to the many breakdowns that Holmes has in pass protection. While he was competent at left tackle for the middle stretch of 2013, the fact that his inaugural season was bookended by poor play does not bode well for him showing any consistency for 16 games this year.
Holmes’ run blocking has been nondescript this summer as well. With the Falcons featuring a lot more pulling from their offensive linemen this year, Holmes looks miscast when asked to block on the move. While Holmes is not a poor athlete for a player of his size, asking the 333-pounder to get his bulk out on the move quickly appears too tall an order.
But despite these issues, Holmes still may be the better option for the Falcons in their attempt to replace Baker because Schraeder has not been any better this summer.
Schraeder has shown a mean streak and edge that probably ranks second only to center Joe Hawley this summer. With the team’s focus on being tougher and more physical, that could get him the nod from the coaches.
That edge and toughness has helped the 300-pound Schraeder in the run game. He’s been much more adept when pulling and blocking on the move this summer.
But the negative on Schraeder is that his pass protection has been much more suspect. He’s looked slow-footed when trying to handle speed on the edge and his punch has not made up for it. Like Holmes, that is mostly a technical issue. Tackles can often make up for subpar foot quickness if they know how to use their hands with an effective punch. Holmes looks better than Schraeder in that arena, and again, Holmes has often struggled there.
Schraeder’s slow development is understandable since he’s relatively new to football, having not played football in high school. So this is only his fifth year playing the game and no different than safety Dezmen Southward, it’s likely going to take additional time for Schraeder to reach his full potential.
Down the road that may be potential that exceeds that of Holmes, but whether Schraeder is poised to be that guy in 2014 seems an awfully tall order.
The decision the Falcons ultimately make will be an interesting one. While the team has not confirmed that Matthews will be moving to the left side of the line after spending the bulk of this summer playing right tackle, it would be absolutely ludicrous if that did not occur.
The Falcons didn’t take Matthews with the sixth overall pick because they envisioned him becoming the next Tyson Clabo or Todd Weiner at right tackle. They did so because they were hoping for Jonathan Ogden or Todd Steussie, i.e. the top left tackles that head coach Mike Smith and offensive line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman have had the pleasure of being around in their careers.
Obviously, the decision on who will get the first shot at winning Baker’s vacant job is important. But perhaps even more so, it’s the decision the Falcons could make if neither Holmes nor Schraeder step up.
Next week’s preseason action against the Tennessee Titans will be a good litmus test for both Holmes and Schraeder. The Falcons are also hoping that Gabe Carimi can return quickly from his ankle injury to give them another option. But there has been no indication over the last week or so that Carimi’s return is imminent.
It should also be noted that Carimi to date has not been very effective at right tackle. And thus if the Falcons wind up turning to him, that may not be any better an option than either Holmes or Schraeder.
Instead, it will be curious to see if the Falcons have learned their lesson from a year ago with the Brian Robiskie signing.
The Falcons typically are a team that learns their lessons at least a year too late. Notably, they learned they should have dumped Michael Turner before he was abysmal in 2012.
Now, we will see if they learned that standing pat on an obvious problem area is a good idea, as they did a year ago when Julio Jones went down and the Falcons decided that signing Robiskie was enough.
The team then learned a hard lesson in 2013 with their decision to hope for the best with a wide receiver corps headlined by Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Kevin Cone, Darius Johnson and Robiskie. Prompting the team to make that poor decision was likely their expectation that Roddy White would return healthy after the bye week coupled with a misguided belief that they had actually done a good job developing the likes of Davis and Cone over the previous two years.
Waiting for Carimi to save the day as they did with White a year ago isn’t likely to turn out any better.
If neither Holmes nor Schraeder step up next week and prove they are capable of handling the job, the Falcons will need to scour the waiver wire at the end of the month and hope someone halfway decent becomes available.
Last year, Jeremy Trueblood became their best option when cuts were made. That did not prove to be so successful, so the hope is that there is a better crop of players out there this summer.
ESPN’s stable of 32 beat writers, including Atlanta’s own Vaughn McClure have been doing weekly team-by-team roster projections and are likely to do another today. But as of this writing, in looking at their projections last week and doing a quick scan of premium website Pro Football Focus’ player grades, there are a few names that stand out that could become available.
PFF’s top-rated tackle in the preseason as of Sunday afternoon is Chris Hairston, who last Monday was projected to get cut by the Buffalo Bills. Sam Young (Jacksonville) and Tom Compton (Washington) are two more tackles that were projected to get cut last week but have earned positive grades thus far this presason. San Diego guard Kenny Wiggins can also be thrown into the mix, as he played last season at offensive tackle with the San Francisco 49ers.
Regardless of whether the Falcons scoop up one of those players or stand pat, no roster moves at tackle are likely to be imminent until after the first cuts are made on August 26.
But again, if Holmes and Schraeder both fail to inspire confidence or Carimi has anything less than a triumphant return on Saturday, the Falcons might be best served trying to move a late-round draft pick for one of these better tackles on the bubble.
The Falcons could potentially get by for a year with an erratic Holmes or Schraeder manning a starting spot. And certainly if either player shows any improvement as the year wears on, they’d have the opportunity to be penciled in as the long-term option opposite Matthews for the foreseeable future.
While the upside for such a reward may be intriguing for the Falcons, once again, they only have to look at the Robiskie situation from a year ago to know how fleeting that can be.
Despite all the extra playing time the Falcons got from Davis, Cone and Johnson last year in the second half of 2013, there have been no dividends paid headed into this season. Davis has missed all of camp thus far with a foot injury. Cone is with the Dolphins and Johnson decided to hang up his cleats the week before camp opened up.
So much for the team’s plan of developing from within!
Bringing in another body at tackle certainly won’t hurt things. The Falcons won’t necessarily be forced to cut either Holmes, Schraeder or Carimi to bring in another option. They certainly could decide to keep 10 offensive linemen to start the year. That decision could potentially cost someone like Davis or Courtney Roby a roster spot as the team’s sixth wideout, but given the play of Southward on special teams Saturday night, that doesn’t seem to be a bad thing.
As for Baker’s future, it again appears that his career in Atlanta is over. He was potentially going to be cut regardless of his injury next offseason, depending on his play this season.
The Falcons are likely going to designate him a post-June 1 release at the start of next offseason and spread his dead money cap hit of $9.2 million over two seasons rather than it all accelerating onto their 2015 salary cap.
If in the mean time, Holmes, Schraeder, Carimi or a newcomer play well this season, then the Falcons will likely be able to stand pat and hope that whichever player shows even further growth in 2015 under Tice and Harman.
If right tackle proves to be problematic for a second year in a row, then it’s likely the Falcons will attempt to shore up the spot in either free agency or the draft, which could be a good thing.
The Falcons attempts to build up their offensive line through the Smith/Thomas Dimitroff regime have failed miserably. High picks used on Baker, Holmes, Mike Johnson and Peter Konz have yet to bear any sustainable long-term fruit.
Hopefully Matthews will be their first step in the right direction this season, coupled with improvements from Hawley and Holmes. But if they’re forced to go back to the well next offseason and wind up making a significant upgrade, then perhaps long-term, Baker’s injury could become a blessing in disguise.
But in the cases of both Smith and Dimitroff, the long-term future of the team may not be on the forefront of their minds. It’s a make or break season for both men. And the Falcons subpar performance against the Texans certainly has created doubt whether either will make it.
But perhaps I’ll save that discussion for next week…