As the Atlanta Falcons trimmed down their roster over the weekend to the 53 players that they are preparing to enter the 2015 regular season with, it became abundantly clear that the offensive line was a potential weakness.
The team swapped a pair of late-round picks with the Tennessee Titans to acquire guard Andy Levitre and then scooped up former New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Bryce Harris, who began his career once upon a time in Atlanta as an undrafted rookie in 2012.
Throughout the offseason and summer, I heard many outsiders express doubt in the Falcons’ chances of returning to the top of the NFC South in 2015 largely due to concerns centering on the offensive line. After the shellacking the Miami Dolphins put on the Falcons’ starters in the third preseason game, it was very clear that the team’s coaches shared those concerns.
Despite initially expressing
negativity hesitance in whether or not Levitre would be an upgrade, I’m a bit more optimistic about his ability to succeed in Atlanta.
Through four years in Buffalo, Levitre was one of the most consistent interior blockers in the league. Despite being undersized, he won with precise technique, hand use and clean footwork. As a 6’2″ 303-pound blocker Levitre looks more like a center than a big burly guard, but was even able to kick over to left tackle in pinch at times for the Bills. I recall watching him hold up against ex-Dallas Cowboys edge-rusher DeMarcus Ware in one game back in 2011. That’s worth noting since that year, Ware had 19.5 sacks and was still one of the league’s most feared pass-rushers, and Levitre was able to go toe-to-toe with him.
I also watched Levitre be effective at controlling former New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, using his hands and quickness to redirect the powerful nose tackle listed at 325 pounds, but looks anything but.
However Levitre is not that same player anymore, which is why I expressed doubt about how good he will be in Atlanta at first. Upon signing a lucrative contract with the Titans in 2013, hip and knee injuries marred both of his first two offseasons with the team.
Injuries and Scheme Limited Levitre in Tennessee
Levitre was considered a disappointment to most observers in Tennessee, although a lot of that had to do with the size of his contract rather than his play on the field. Levitre was serviceable most weeks and occasionally good. But when paying a player nearly $50 million over six years, ideally a team wants a little more than serviceable.
A good Falcons-centric comparison with Levitre’s situation in Tennessee might be cornerback Dunta Robinson. The Falcons gave him a similarly lucrative deal back in 2010, with the expectations that he would be their No. 1 cornerback for several years to come. Robinson had three serviceable years in Atlanta as a starter, rarely living up to the billing as a player that he could check the top receiver on opposing teams.
But in Robinson’s case, he was asked to do something completely different in Atlanta than he was in Houston, where he was the top player in the Texans’ secondary. Robinson made his bones as a press corner that shadowed the opposing team’s top receiver, where he could use his physicality and athleticism to challenge opponents.
In Atlanta, he was stuck on an island on one side of the field by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and was rarely asked to press, instead playing a lot more off coverage. It was essentially taking what a player did best, and doing the exact opposite of what made him initially successful.
The Titans did something similar when they reduced the amount of zone-blocking they utilized, particularly upon the arrival of head coach Ken Whisenhunt in 2014. Thus, why moving back to a outside zone-blocking scheme in Atlanta like Levitre relished in during his days in Buffalo should be beneficial for the seventh-year pro.
However, hopes that Levitre will immediately flourish in Atlanta simply because a scheme change is not completely realistic. The injuries that sapped him of some ability the past two years don’t magically go away. The wear and tear that they caused on his body is something that is irrevocably going to be lost.
Levitre Poised to Grow With Falcons Line Moving Forward
Not to mention the critical factor of continuity along the offensive line. It’s going to take time for Levitre to mesh with his new teammates within a brand new offense. Hopes that he’ll immediately come in at left guard and neutralize players like Fletcher Cox, Johnathan Hankins and Tyrone Crawford the first three weeks of the season may not be very realistic. However the Falcons can hope that as the year wears on, Levitre starts to click better in Atlanta and that continuity can build.
It’s also a positive development that Levitre was much healthier this offseason than he ever was previously in Tennessee, only missing time with a bout of appendicitis in July. That showed on the field when I went back and re-watched the Titans’ preseason-opening game against the Falcons.
Levitre was moving a lot better this summer than he had in previous observations over the past two seasons and being able to get out on the move in the Falcons’ zone-blocking scheme should be beneficial. He still can get overwhelmed at times with speed and power, and thus his pass protection is likely to be iffy at times this year. But ultimately the Falcons are hoping that he can provide a much bigger boost to the running game that has been virtually non-existent this summer.
Being a better scheme fit in Atlanta is less about dialing the clock back to Levitre being the player he was in Buffalo, but rather the Falcons maximizing what remains of his ability after the injuries that limited him the past two years.
Offensive Line Continuity Difficult to Find in NFL
As far as Harris goes, he won’t be expected to be a starter and instead was added to bolster depth at the tackle position that was sorely needing it. When the team added Tyler Polumbus in May, it was their best hope for a stopgap measure, thinking that he would compete with and push Lamar Holmes for the right to be the team’s swing tackle. Unfortunately Holmes went down with a foot injury and a month later and is now going to miss probably half of the 2015 season, leaving a gaping hole at the position.
Especially in light of the fact that starting left tackle Jake Matthews has been limited with a back strain since the Dolphins game. While hoping that Matthews is on schedule to play in the regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, concerns are now heightened about whether or not the Falcons starting tackles in Matthews and Ryan Schraeder will be able to hold up for 16 games.
In team history, the Falcons have had all five offensive linemen each start 16 games once in the past 15 seasons. That happened in 2010, and was a big reason why that team finished the year with the second-best record in franchise history.
Just as it has been in Atlanta, it’s not very common to have that level of stability around the rest of the NFL. Since 2012, only six teams have managed to have all five starters for the entire season: 2013 Chicago Bears, 2013 Philadelphia Eagles, 2013 Washington Redskins, 2012 San Francisco 49ers, 2012 New York Jets and 2012 Minnesota Vikings. All except the Redskins made the playoffs in those years, which is another feather in the hat of how continuity and stability along the offensive line is important for overall team success.
Yet the larger point is that over the past three years, there’s been 96 opportunities for teams to have the same group of five play in every game and it’s only been done six times, just six percent of the time. Even if the parameters are reduced to four blockers starting all 16 games, it only results in 26 instances, or 27 percent of the time.
There is nearly just as high a possibility that only one blocker manages to start all 16 games, as that has occurred 18 times over the past three seasons. And four teams have seen none of their front five start 16 games over that same span.
Harris Adds Insurance and Depth at Offensive Tackle
Anyway you slice it, there’s a very high probability that for at least one game this year, the Falcons will be starting one of their backup linemen along the way, whether that’s Harris, Polumbus, James Stone or Mike Person remains to be seen.
So it makes total sense for the Falcons to shore up their depth at offensive tackle, given it’s appeared to be a problem area ever since Polumbus hit the field. Frankly Polumbus has struggled mightily throughout the preseason, getting consistently overwhelmed with speed and quickness off the edge. He did show some improvement in pass protection as the summer wore on, but not nearly enough for the Falcons to be comfortable with heading into the season with him as their top option behind Matthews and Schraeder.
The Falcons didn’t have a lot of choices when scouring the waiver wire this weekend and thus essentially settled on Harris. But he has a few things going in his favor.
Harris has starting experience, which was probably critical for the Falcons. They aren’t in the market to be developing someone green in the event that Matthews or Schraeder miss time. A player like Harris, who has started at both left and right tackle over the past few years with the Saints has immediate value and versatility in that regard.
Harris does fit in the outside zone-blocking scheme as he’s able to get out and block on the move. No one would call him a great athlete but he’s certainly an upgrade over Polumbus, who seemed to struggle hitting his assignments throughout the summer when asked to move.
Harris’ biggest weakness is his hand usage. He doesn’t have a very powerful or accurate punch and thus has difficulty maintaining his blocks both as a run-blocker and pass-protector. It’s a reason why he was overwhelmed often late in the game when facing the Falcons’ edge-rushers last season in their Week 16 matchup. Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann each got the better of him several times down the stretch, thanks to the Falcons building up a lead allowing their two edge-rushers to pin their ears back and get after Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Harris was overmatched, three times getting beat by Umenyiora with inside counter moves thanks in part because of an ineffective punch.
That’s likely going to be an issue that the Falcons are going to have to deal with should Harris get time in the lineup. But at the end of the day, all Harris has to be is serviceable and should either Matthews or Schraeder miss time, the hope will be that it won’t be a prolonged absence. Harris is by no means a bad player, but it’s very clear that he’s probably more in line with the guy a team would want as its fourth tackle instead of the third guy. But in the Falcons’ case, beggars can’t be choosers and Harris is certainly a better third option than any options on their roster before final cuts.
Both of these moves point to the one thing that could potentially derail the Falcons’ 2015 season: injuries.
Falcons Lack of Depth Concerning At Several Spots
While the team’s starters appear solid and capable on both sides of the ball, the depth behind them looks limited in certain key areas. It’s not just the offensive line depth that is a concern, but several other positions that could prove problematic if starters get hurt.
Behind Matt Ryan at quarterback, the team has untested Sean Renfree poised to play in his first NFL regular season in the event of an injury to the starter.
For the first time in forever, the Falcons potentially feature a starting four in their nickel subset that can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But they don’t have a lot of proven pass-rushers behind them. If Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Jonathan Babineaux or O’Brien Schofield miss time, the team will probably have to turn to Kroy Biermann, Malliciah Goodman, Ra’Shede Hageman and Grady Jarrett. None of them are bad players with some possessing considerable upside to develop as a pass-rushers down the road, yet each represent a considerable drop-off in proven ability from the players that the Falcons plan on starting, at least as far as this season goes.
Biermann may not be much of an option at defensive end for some time given that he’ll likely be subbing in for an injured Brooks Reed at strong-side linebacker for the first half of the season. If he were to go down as well, the Falcons would likely have to turn to Tyler Starr. Like Renfree, any action Starr seasons this season will be his first.
The team’s cornerback depth isn’t great either. Rookie Jalen Collins had a rough first summer and Dezmen Southward showed very little as both are one injury to Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford or Phillip Adams away from being utilized as the team’s nickel corner.
Depth behind free safety Ricardo Allen is also a question mark with undrafted rookie Robenson Therezie the top reserve there. It remains to be seen if that is even Therezie’s best position as he didn’t always show the range and instincts required to play that position this past preseason. The team’s only other options are Kemal Ishmael and Charles Godfrey. Ishmael struggled mightily when asked to play center field last season, and Godfrey was too frequently out of position in coverage this summer to think he offers a significantly better alternative.
I note these things not to rain on anybody’s parade, but only to show that their lack of depth in some critical areas could potentially hurt the team in 2015 if the injury bug continues to plague them as it has done the past two seasons.
Improved Drafting is Only Solution to Bolstering Depth
This is a direct consequence of the team’s inability to draft well in recent years, particularly in the middle rounds. Perhaps new head coach Dan Quinn’s biggest test this year will be answering whether he can overcome that drafting deficiency.
Recent middle-round picks like Allen, Southward, Goodman, Devonta Freeman and Levine Toilolo have to be more than just low-level backups. Too often in recent drafts the Falcons netted little in picks like Akeem Dent, Prince Shembo, Bradie Ewing and Holmes in rounds three, four and five.
Things are looking better with players like Allen and Freeman poised to be starters this year, and hopefully good ones. Toilolo has shown enough improvement this summer to land the No. 2 tight end gig, and hopefully can be a positive contributor in the red zone this season.
It remains to be seen where Southward and Goodman stand with the team but at least in the latter’s case, he made enough plays this summer to think that there is some potential that he could be poised to slide into Clayborn’s role as an interior nickel pass-rusher in the future.
Not to mention this year’s crop of mid-round picks featuring Tevin Coleman, Justin Hardy and Jarrett that are expected to be contributors today as well as in the future.
It’s not realistic to expect that every mid-round pick is going to turn into a quality starter. Frankly, the data says there’s a 23 percent chance of finding a quality starter in the third round and that slides to 11 percent by the time the fifth round rolls around.
But at the very least a team should be able to find quality role players in that portion of the draft similar to what the Falcons had formerly in Corey Peters and Jacquizz Rodgers. They weren’t always playing at a high level when they started games, but certainly did their fair share of contributing on offense and defense each and every Sunday over the past four-plus years.
Quinn won’t simply be able to snap his fingers and magically make recent underachievers into that caliber of contributor. But there is certainly reason for optimism in Atlanta given how the 2015 draft class might be setting a new precedent that the team will become a lot more successful when it comes to drafting.
While that may not quite alleviate 2015’s depth concerns just yet, it does suggest that in the future that this may be one of the last times the Falcons enter a season needing to have to scramble to fix some of their roster deficiencies.