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Training Camp Preview: Offensive Line

July 20th, 2008

The Falcons offensive line could be one of the more interesting positions during the course of training camp due to its greatest potential for roster turnover.

The starting positions remain unsettled at four of the five positions. The only player that is sitting pretty as far as job security goes is center Todd McClure.

McClure has been the team’s starting center since midway through the 2000 season. McClure in physical terms is far from an imposing blocker, but with his wealth of experience comes ample intelligence. He does a good job spotting the blitz and making adjustments, and probably had a significant hand in keeping the line relatively steady last year despite the numerous injuries.

Who will flank McClure remains unclear at this point. On his left, the early favorite is Justin Blalock. Blalock began last year as the team’s starter but was benched towards the end of the year, after several months of struggling as a rookie. Blalock, considered one of the top guard prospects in the 2007 Draft hopes to make his debut season an aberration. He has good strength, size, and athleticism, but was overpowered and outmatched too many times last year. He’s going to have to improve both as a run blocker and pass protector.

If not Blalock, then it will most likely be Quinn Ojinnaka. But Ojinnaka is currently penciled in as the starter at left tackle. But in truth he’s been splitting reps with first rounder Sam Baker. The Falcons hope Baker can handle the left tackle spot as a rookie as it would allow Ojinnaka to move inside to his more natural position of guard. Ojinnaka started 7 games last year at left tackle, filling in when Wayne Gandy, Renardo Foster, and Todd Weiner were lost to injury. He struggled at times, but proved he wasn’t a major liability. He doesn’t have the athleticism or footwork to work out on the edge. Baker has excellent footwork and technique for pass protection, but offers little in the ground attack. But he was criticized in the months leading up to the draft due to his short arms, which could prove troublesome for him in pass protection out on the edge. But Baker is a smart, heady technician type of player, and he wouldn’t be the first short-armed left tackle to play in the NFL. Others have preceded him and done well, and the Falcons hope he can repeat their success. If he’s not up to the task, the Falcons will plug in Ojinnaka and Blalock should land the guard spot. If Baker shows enough early on, then Ojinnaka could move inside before the end of camp and push Blalock there.

At right guard will be a very interesting battle between Harvey Dahl and Kynan Forney. Dahl made a name for himself in OTAs by getting into two scuffles on the same day. That sort of nasty attitude has endeared him to the coaches and he’s been working with the first team for much of the off-season. A former tackle, Dahl has spent the last two seasons mostly on the practice squads of the Falcons and 49ers and playing in NFL Europe.

However, if Dahl is not up to the task, then the incumbent Kynan Forney is likely to keep his job. Forney struggled last year, but has been relatively steady for the Falcons on the right side for much of the past six seasons. Forney in the past made a name for himself with his superior work ethic and feisty persona, so essentially he and Dahl could be considered very similar players. With a cap hit approaching $4 million this year, Forney however will have to win the starting job to retain his roster position.

At right tackle, there really won’t be much of a battle. It will mostly depend on Todd Weiner’s health. If he’s healthy, then he’ll win the job. If not, then Tyson Clabo will get the job. Clabo performed well last year as a fill-in for Weiner for most of the season. Weiner is coming off serious knee surgery and is expected to be healthy for camp, but if he’s slowed in any way, then the job will go to Clabo. Weiner offers the team some versatility as he could be a capable insurance policy at left tackle in case Baker or Ojinnaka struggle there. He lacks ideal quickness for that position, but he’s a long-time veteran with superior technique that can make up some of the difference. Clabo is strong, and probably is best suited to play inside, but is versatile enough to play every position except center.

Outside those eight, it’s doubtful anybody else would get a serious shot at winning a starting job barring injury. The remaining six players on the roster may be competing for two or three remaining roster spots.

Renardo Foster and Terrance Pennington are competing for a possible reserve tackle position. Foster performed relatively well for an undrafted rookie tackle last year in his two starts at left tackle. However, his opportunities last year were partly helped by Bobby Petrino’s staff’s familiarity with him from college. He’s unlikely to get the same benefits with the new coaches, but would make a solid third tackle due to his potential to play either side. Pennington started at right tackle for the Bills in 2006, and showed good potential. He’s got intriguing size and the ability to play either spot.

On the inside, D’Anthony Batiste and Pat McCoy will be vying for reserve guard spots. Both players have played tackle in the past but will likely stay at guard. They have good size and potential, but neither player has done much to impress in their limited time.

At center, Alex Stepanovich has a good shot at making the roster since he was one of the few linemen that isn’t a holdover from previous regimes. He can play all three interior spots although has struggled when asked to start in the past despite being a highly rated center coming out of Ohio State a few years ago. Ben Wilkerson is the third option at center, and will be hard-pressed to leapfrog Stepanovich on the depth chart. He’s a bit more physical a center than McClure, but is not as athletic.

The Battles

Sam Baker vs. Quinn Ojinnaka – This is basically Baker’s job to lose. If the coaches think he’s ready, then the job is his.
Kynan Forney vs. Harvey Dahl – Should be an interesting battle. You could say this battle is a microcosm of the whole overarching theme that the organization wants to present: “out with the old, in with the new.”

Unless the Falcons need the extra space elsewhere due to injury, it’s likely they will keep nine blockers. But the coaching staff has talked big about versatility, so that they could potentially afford to keep only eight blockers. Baker, McCoy, Foster, and Batiste remain eligible for the practice squad.

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