Team Needs: Falcons Tackles Could be Shuffled Around
Although some had the foresight to question it, it’s become abundantly clear in hindsight that the contract the Falcons gave left tackle Sam Baker last March was a bad one. The team is faced with the scenario of paying him an option bonus which likely will lock him to being a Falcon for the next two seasons. While it’s possible the Falcons could decide to get out of the contract, it does not appear that is their plans, likely due to the significant cap penalties they would face over the next year or two. So it seems that Baker will return next season and open up the offseason as a starter. The only real question is whether that will be playing left tackle or another position.
It’s likely that Baker will man the left tackle position once again in 2014. But it’s possible that dependent on what moves the Falcons make this offseason, he could be switching positions. Baker’s brief stint at right guard did not go well in 2011, making a possible switch to right tackle more doubtful. If that happens, then it will be due to the Falcons spending on a free agent or using a high pick on another left tackle. The latter seems more plausible of the two scenarios, since it’s doubtful the Falcons are willing to dole out another large contract that it would take to entice such a free agent to Atlanta given their investment in Baker. And drafting a tackle will depend on whether or not the Falcons like the premier prospects at the top of the draft, whether they are on the board on May 8, and if the Falcons can shore up other needs across the roster in free agency. All of which are unknown quantities to date, making it doubtful that is planned path moving forward.
A position switch from Baker would also affect Lamar Holmes, who would be considered the incumbent at the tackle spot opposite Baker. Holmes spent much of the 2013 season playing his natural left tackle position due to injuries to Baker, and his few starts at right tackle did not go swimmingly. If the Falcons do make a major splash in the offseason to upgrade their tackle position, it will likely result in Holmes being sent to the bench. However he could still have the chance to unseat Baker or a rookie in a training camp competition if he can polish up his technique and conditioning which were erratic in 2013.
If the Falcons do nothing major this offseason, then it likely means Baker remains on the left side and Holmes is the guy to beat on the right side. If Baker can play like he did in 2012 and Holmes shows improvement under new position coach Mike Tice, then the Falcons will be fine in terms at offensive tackle in 2014. They won’t be great, but both Baker and Holmes have the capacity to be solid and effective starters. It hasn’t been a regular occurrence over the past two years, but we’ve seen glimpses of it from time to time. And thus Tice’s primary task may be to turn one good performance into sixteen. And if that were to occur, the team’s investment in Baker won’t look nearly as short-sighted moving forward.
Another player that could be in the mix for a starting position in 2014 is Ryan Schraeder, who started the final four games of 2013 at right tackle. Schraeder showed his youth often with inconsistencies, but also has flashed enough upside to think that moving forward he could be a long-term developmental option. He could have the inside track to be long-term replacement option for the Falcons if/when they part ways with Baker in a couple of years. However in the immediate future, the Falcons have a player in Schraeder that can at least serve as decent competition in training camp at either tackle spot should the need arise.
At the very least it’s presumable that the Falcons will sign/draft someone to bolster competition this summer. The team may still have enough confidence and optimism that Tice can get more out of Baker, Holmes, and/or Schraeder that they can plug and play in 2014. And that could preclude the Falcons from making a major move at the position. If that’s the case, then it’s likely the Falcons will sign a low-level veteran free agent to add some depth and insurance. Jeremy Trueblood served that role in 2013, but is an impending free agent and would only be brought back if the Falcons don’t find a better, younger option on the open market. The same could be said of Sean Locklear, another free agent.
Former 2010 third-round pick Mike Johnson, another free agent, could also be in the mix since he opened up training camp as the team’s starting right tackle. But like Baker, Johnson has been marred by injuries throughout his Falcon career, one of which sidelined him for the entirety of 2013 and led to Holmes being thrust into the lineup. That injury history should keep his potential price tag to a minimum, but it makes him an unreliable option.
Terren Jones was promoted from the practice squad late in the year, but it’s doubtful the Falcons see him as anything more than a developmental option given how raw he is. He did not play particularly well during the preseason and could use another year on the practice squad before being asked to log significant minutes.
Atlanta will bolster this position this offseason somehow, but it’s easy to see how the Falcons will avoid a huge investment if they believe between Baker, Holmes and Schraeder, that both of the starting tackles are already on the roster.