Where do Falcons turn at right tackle?
Mike Johnson is down and not likely to return anytime soon for the Falcons. It puts the pressure on Lamar Holmes to step up and man the right tackle position that most were expected him to win outright when the team opted to cut Tyson Clabo in the off-season.
Pressure will be on Holmes this year, as the Falcons offensive line is the biggest weakness on their offense. It has struggled throughout each of the past two regular seasons, allowing too much pressure to reach Matt Ryan, and not being able to clear running lanes to produce for the ground attack.
The likely scenario for the Falcons will be to wait and see. As I outlined earlier this offseason when it came to the possibility of signing a veteran like Eric Winston to bolster the right tackle position, the Falcons have a vested interest in their young players developing at the position. Signing a veteran will only really prevent that development, and it’s not something one should expect the Falcons to make immediately, if at all.
Undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder has been earning a ton of praise thus far in camp, and fellow rookie Terren Jones has also had his moments. The Falcons will likely give all three players along with Alec Savoie opportunities in these first two preseason games to see if they can step up and ably fill the void.
Johnson was by no means a proven commodity at the position, but the belief was that via competition between him and Holmes, the Falcons could be firm that they had solidified that spot the best they could. Without a veteran player like Johnson in the mix, it will be a hard to gauge exactly where Holmes is.
If the Falcons do go shopping for right tackles, Sean Locklear, Jammal Brown, and Winston Justice likely top the free agent lists. Locklear is a versatile player that served as the Giants swing tackle last year. He started 9 games in 2012: one at left tackle, and the rest at right tackle due to an early season injury to David Diehl. But Locklear wound up tearing his ACL in December and is unlikely to be ready for the start of the regular season.
Brown is the most decorated of the group, protecting Drew Brees’ blindside for three seasons in New Orleans (2006-08) and earning a pair of trips to the Pro Bowl. But injuries began sapping him in 2009, causing him to miss the entire season. He returned to the league to play for the Washington Redskins after that, manning the right tackle position he initially played with the Saints as a rookie in 2005. But his bad hips caused him to be largely ineffective there. He started the 2012 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list due to him suffering a setback in his recovery from hip injuries the year before. He had surgery last August, and then returned to practice in November, but had another setback and finished the year on injured reserve without ever suiting up for the Redskins in a game. Given that Brown’s hips have shown little to no improvement over the past three years, he would be a significant re-injury risk if the Falcons signed him.
That likely leaves Winston Justice as the best possible solution. For much of last season, Justice was the Colts’ highest-rated blocker manning the right tackle position for one of the league’s weaker lines. But Justice had his own bouts of injuries, suffering a pair of concussions last year. He wound up having to be pulled from seven games last year due to various injuries, and missed another four due to those injuries sustained. The littany of injuries he suffered last year include a pair of concussions, as well as injuries to his ankle, knee, biceps, and shoulder that forced him out of games. Justice did draw interest from several teams during the off-season including the Dolphins, Lions, Chargers, and Steelers.
Other potential free agents available include Brandyn Dombrowski, Wayne Hunter, and Frank Omiyale. Dombrowski started last year with the San Diego Chargers on the PUP with a cyst in his foot, but was not activated and finished the year on IR. Hunter struggled as a right tackle for a couple of years with the New York Jets, before he was traded last year to the St. Louis Rams and played left tackle. He did not fare much better in four starts before poor play led to his benching after he gave up three sacks in a Week 6 game against the Dolphins.
Omiyale is a former Falcon drafted in 2005, but he played very little (1 game) before being cut in 2007. He would then go onto be a journeyman backup with a number of teams, starting a three different positions over the past five seasons with three different teams. During that span most of his work came at left tackle (16 starts) mainly with the Chicago Bears in 2010. He started one game at that position for the Seattle Seahawks in 2012 in the wake of an injury to Russell Okung. He also started 12 games at left guard for the Bears in 2009, and a total of five games over the course of 2010-11 for them at right tackle. Omiyale is a versatile backup that can be plugged in at a number of positions, but has consistently been an underwhelming starter when forced to play. His best season was the year he spent at guard, where his physical tools weren’t overmatched.
Several veteran players sit astride the roster bubble in their respective camps, and thus the options available could be better in a few weeks when roster cuts are made. In Chicago, Jonathan Scott appears to be on the bubble. Dennis Roland, a Georgia product, is not faring well with the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland’s Willie Smith appears to be on the outside looking in for a roster spot. The loser of the battle for reserve right tackle with the Redskins, between either Tony Pashos or Jeremy Trueblood also should be available when cuts are made. Bryce Harris was an undrafted free agent last year with the Falcons, having played under OL coach Pat Hill at Fresno State. He is now competing with Jason Smith for a reserve spot with the Saints and either could be axed. Another former Fresno State player in Kenny Wiggins is competing for a job with the San Francisco 49ers and has had his share of struggles against the 49ers top pass rushers this summer.