The Atlanta Falcons finally found their new starting left guard this past Friday when they signed former Washington Redskins right guard Chris Chester to a one-year deal.
According to ESPN the deal is worth $2.8 million, a significant increase over the salary of Mike Person, who had taken all the first-team snaps at the position thus far this offseason. Person signed a three-year deal worth $3.35 million this offseason and between his initial signing bonus and 2015 base salary, was set to make $1.245 million this season. Simply put, the Falcons wouldn’t pay Chester that much money if it’s a truly open competition for the spot.
So now the Falcons have finally settled on their replacement for veteran guard Justin Blalock, who was released earlier this offseason.
Back at the beginning of March, I wrote about the possible plans the Falcons had in replacing Blalock with an eye to get younger, better and cheaper at the position. In signing Chester the team managed to only accomplish one of those three goals: finding a cheaper alternative.
Falcons Draft and Free-Agent Options at Guard Were Limited
The 32-year old Chester is in fact 11 months older than Blalock, so clearly the team did not get younger. The best-case scenario for the team to find a younger option was via the 2015 NFL draft. However, there weren’t a ton of great options for the team there.
They could have drafted someone like Oregon’s Jake Fisher when he slipped to the second round, but instead chose to pick cornerback Jalen Collins. It’s hard to complain about that move if Collins can live up to his potential at a premium position like cornerback. And with other potential plug-and-play zone-blocking guards like Mitch Morris, Ali Marpet and Ty Sambrailo going off the board before the Falcons’ third-round pick came on the clock, any alternative options became increasingly limited.
Person is younger than Blalock by five years, but certainly no one would claim that a guy that filled in as the seventh man in the St. Louis Ram’s blocking rotation a year ago was better than Blalock, who had become the team’s most reliable blocker collectively over the past three or so seasons after the decline of Tyson Clabo in 2012.
If the Falcons hoped to find a better player than Blalock immediately, they needed to turn to free agency to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately like the draft, free agency didn’t feature a ton of great options. Back in March, I talked about how James Carpenter was an experienced zone-blocking guard from Seattle, but due to his inability to stay healthy and be reliably productive when he was on the field, was a clear downgrade from Blalock.
Other potential options that were clearer upgrades over Blalock however weren’t ideal fits in a zone-blocking scheme. San Francisco’s Mike Iupati has been one of the best guards in the entire NFL in recent years, but is a massive 331-pound mauler in the middle. It didn’t make sense to pay a premium for a player like him that was only going to be a square peg in the scheme. Iupati eventually signed with the Arizona Cardinals for $40 million.
Orlando Franklin at least played in a zone-blocking scheme with the Denver Broncos in 2014, but in truth the 6-foot-7, 320-pound Franklin is not a gifted mover. He joined the San Diego Chargers on a $36.5 million contract. While the Chargers do feature zone-blocking in their offense, they clearly prefer bigger players like King Dunlap (330 pounds), D.J. Fluker (339), Chris Hairston (330), Joe Barksdale (326) and Johnnie Troutman (330) on their line. Given the Falcons’ preference for lighter guys, which has become more obvious in hindsight after signings of Person (299 pounds), Chester (303) and Jared Smith (302), Franklin probably was never on the team’s radar to begin with.
Another option could have been Clint Boling, who at 310 pounds at least would look the part of a quick, athletic zone-blocking player the Falcons are looking for. Boling certainly had the attributes to succeed in a zone-blocking scheme and as a native of Alpharetta, Georgia, signing with the Falcons would have been considered a homecoming. However, Boling didn’t have a ton of experience playing in a zone-blocking scheme in Cincinnati, who were more of a power-blocking team. Because of that, one could argue that paying a premium for Boling and plugging him into the spot that Blalock just vacated was a lateral move, albeit for a younger player. Boling eventually opted to return to Cincinnati on a $26 million contract.
One of the reasons why I was initially upset with the Falcons’ decision to release Blalock because all of this was somewhat foreseeable back in late February. It simply wasn’t an offseason that featured a ton of promising options for the Falcons in either free agency or the draft.
Blalock Could Have Fit in Falcons’ New Blocking Scheme
Another problem I had with Blalock’s release was what has become a wide misconception that Blalock was a poor fit in the zone-blocking. While it’s true that Blalock didn’t have the ideal movement skills one looks for in a zone-blocking guard, calling him a poor fit is an exaggeration.
If being a bad scheme fit was the primary motivator behind Blalock’s release, then why are Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz still on the Falcons roster? Both are much worse fits for the zone-blocking scheme than Blalock. But at least Holmes has dropped weight to try and fit better in the new scheme, slimming down to 310 pounds from his previously listed 333 pounds.
The Falcons did the exact same thing on the other side of the ball, by asking Tyson Jackson to drop weight to become a better fit as well. If all Blalock needed to was lose some weight to become more adept at blocking on the move, then there’s no reason why the Falcons couldn’t have approached him to do so as they’ve done with others.
Instead, the real reason why the Falcons cut Blalock is almost certainly tied to money. Blalock was set to count $7.9 million against this year’s salary cap, and given his advanced age, the Falcons ultimately deemed it wasn’t worth it.
Even if the Falcons had retained Blalock, it was a virtual certainty that 2015 would be his last year in Atlanta. So the Falcons opted to cut him sooner rather than later because again, they probably felt they could get certainly get a cheaper option, also hoping that he’d be younger, better or both.
Baker’s Chances of Sticking in Atlanta Dwindling
That financial motive is made even clearer by the continued presences of Jackson and Sam Baker on the roster. While those two are being overcompensated considering their potential roles in 2015, it was a lot easier for the Falcons to cut Blalock back in February than either of them. Both Jackson and Baker would have required the Falcons to designate them as post-June 1 cuts (which should now be considered post-May 12 cuts) in order to avoid significant cap penalties. Blalock on the other hand could be cut and create significant cap space (nearly $4 million) no strings attached.
Baker’s recovery from injury also complicates the matter. Essentially you can’t cut injured players, at least not easily in the offseason. Instead, the Falcons are likely waiting until Baker is cleared to practice before they are going to part ways with him. Much in the same way they did back when they released fullback Ovie Mughelli in May 2012 four days after he was medically cleared by team doctors.
As I noted in April, there is a possibility that the Falcons are planning to keep Baker in the event that Jake Matthews’ recovery from his foot injury becomes extended. There’s still the possibility that happens, but one would expect that the Falcons would have tried to renegotiate Baker’s contract by now. He’s set to count $7.3 million against this year’s cap, and if his primary role with the Falcons in 2015 is going to be as a swing tackle, that figure has to come down. Right now, their top candidates for that swing role are Holmes and Tyler Polumbus, who will count roughly $1.675 million and $585,000, respectively, against this year’s salary cap.
There is a possibility that once healthy, Baker could be in the competition at left guard. He indicated earlier this offseason that he was open to the position switch and hailing from his days with Pete Carroll at Southern California, Baker is certainly familiar with the trappings of the Alex Gibbs-style zone-blocking scheme that the Falcons are installing under head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. But the signing of Chester almost certainly nixes that possibility. So it’s likely that Baker’s fate is inevitably to be released at some point this summer when he’s finally healthy enough to practice.
Chester Should Benefit From Switch to Left Side
Chester isn’t younger or better than Blalock, but he certainly is cheaper with the Falcons paying about $5 million less between the two players’ 2015 salary-cap hits. Chester is a better fit in the zone-blocking scheme than Blalock, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a better option.
Chester has the movement skills you look for at the position, given his smaller, athletic 303-pound frame. But where he’s a significant downgrade as far as Blalock is concerned is in the strength department. Thus, one would think that Chester would struggle against bigger, more powerful defensive tackles. Instead, at least based off the film I’ve watched, Chester tends to struggle with the quicker tackles that can get upfield in a hurry. That’s because Chester relies on quickness rather than strength to beat opponents. But if said opponent is quicker than him, then he really has nothing in his arsenal to throw at them.
One positive for Chester in Atlanta is that he should make the switch from the right side of the line to the left. That means he’ll likely receive more help from the center as the Falcons, like most NFL teams, tend to roll their protections to the left. That often leaves the right guard on an island in pass protection and most teams usually line up their best interior pass-rusher on the left side of the defensive line. Chester tended to struggle the past few years as a right guard in Washington when he faced top interior pass-rushers like Justin Tuck, Kevin Williams, Jason Hatcher, Michael Bennett and Gerald McCoy.
Asamoah Solidified Right Guard and Shouldn’t Move Anywhere
There should be little chance that Chester supplants Jon Asamoah at right guard this year for that exact reason. It’s no coincidence that McCoy’s only negatively graded pass-rushing performance in 2014 according to premium website Pro Football Focus came against Asamoah and the Falcons in Week 10 last year. McCoy was far and away the league’s best interior pass-rusher according to PFF with his 36.2 pass-rushing grade nearly doubling the next best defensive tackle’s (Kyle Williams) 19.0 grade.
Asamoah was the Falcons’ most effective and consistent blocker a year ago and is a perfect fit for the zone-blocking scheme despite what you might hear from others. Asamoah excelled in a zone scheme with the Kansas City Chiefs for three years until the arrival of Andy Reid in 2013 prompted the team to install more of a power element, which subsequently led to the 305-pound Asamoah being benched in favor of the 340-pound Geoff Schwartz.
Asamoah has a reputation for being tough and physical, but that doesn’t mean he’s a mauler. It’s one of the reasons why I initially questioned the Falcons’ decision to sign him a year ago due to him not being a great fit. The Falcons for years had been primarily a man-blocking team that wanted their blockers to move defenders off the ball, which was not a strength of Asamoah. However, the Falcons adapted their blocking scheme under Mike Tice and Wade Harman in 2014 to better fit Asamoah. They did so not by increasing the number of zone-blocking plays, but rather utilizing a lot more pulling and movement up front.
That shift in blocking scheme was a big reason why I gave up Konz last summer due to the fact that the Falcons were featuring a lot more movement via pulling and screens, as well as blockers being asked to get out to the second level, areas that were Konz’s biggest weaknesses.
Holmes’ Roster Status Could Be Indicative of Positive Shift in Atlanta
That’s only going to increase now that the Falcons are fully integrating zone-blocking into their offense in 2015. A player like Holmes could potentially get by in the new scheme, especially with his weight loss. It also helps Holmes’ chances of sticking because he’s not facing top-notch competition at tackle this summer. Tyler Polumbus struggled with the Redskins at right tackle in pass protection, which means that his prospects of being a capable swing tackle that can also play on the left side are low. Seventh-round draft pick Jake Rodgers is a right tackle-only player that has the necessary athleticism, but still raw and unproven in his development.
That gives Holmes the leg up on his competition given the questions surrounding whether or not Matthews can and will be completely recovered from injury this season. But that doesn’t mean Holmes is a safe bet to make the roster. Under the previous coaching staff being the best of a weak group of backups might have been good enough to make the team, but with Quinn calling the shots that is unlikely to be the case any longer.
Even though the Falcons might have lucked out by coming across a free agent like Chester this late in the offseason, the chances of finding a quality backup tackle in August only increase after cuts are made.
One of the things I’m most looking forward to with Quinn having final say over the 53-man roster is how active the Falcons are throughout late August and early September in remaking their roster if/when current players aren’t up to par.
I’ve made numerous past references to the Falcons previous tendency to stand pat at positions even though it was obvious that their current options weren’t getting the job done. That was a big part of the complacency that the previous regime had when general manager Thomas Dimitroff had final say over the 53-man roster with significant input from former head coach Mike Smith. A shift in that philosophy will be one of many positive changes that should occur with Quinn’s arrival.
In the case of a player like Holmes, even though he’s likely to win the competition in training camp to become the team’s top backup at offensive tackle, that won’t guarantee him a spot on the roster. If the Falcons feel they can find a better option than Holmes, even if Holmes is competent the summer, it will be a strong indicator that things have changed for the better in Atlanta.
It not only means that the Falcons will be in a better situation for the short term in 2015, but also for the long term under Quinn. I’ve noted before that a big reason why top teams like the Seahawks and New England Patriots have been successful in recent years is largely because their coaching staffs and front offices aren’t hesitant to try and find better options if available.
Anybody that has been a regular reader of these takeaways columns over the past six months should be well aware of my belief that the much of the Falcons problems the past few years was due to their hesitance to make improvements to their roster.
In the case of Chester, the team struck quickly to find a better option than Person. Chester was a free agent for two days before the Falcons brought him and inked him to a deal. Even though Chester is a downgrade from Blalock, this move indicates that the Falcons are still going about things the right away. This may not be a big move that alone will have a massive impact this year, but it’s often the small moves that add up over time to equal a big move.
And that essentially has been the story of the Falcons’ offseason, a lot of smaller moves that hopefully will add up to reap big results in 2015.