On Friday, ESPN’s Vaughn McClure wrote that he expects Atlanta Falcons center Joe Hawley to be a priority target to re-sign among the team’s impending free agents. Given the struggles of Peter Konz last year at the position, and Hawley’s expected to be a relatively cheap option for the team, it makes sense that bringing him back shouldn’tt be too difficult for the Falcons.
But last week, Tony Pauline of TFY Draft Insider cited sources at the Combine that indicated that the chances of Hawley’s return to Atlanta was considered “50-50.” That initial prognostication flies in the face of what McClure wrote, so which is it?
Unfortunately, Pauline did not go into detail exactly why the chances of Hawley returning could go either way. Whether that is due to him likely finding greener pastures elsewhere in the league or not being considered a priority by the Falcons, was not indicated. However, it probably refers to the latter since the former seems less likely.
Pro Football Focus rates Hawley as their seventh-best center among the impending free agents. Hawley played about 530 snaps this past season at center, mostly coming in the final seven games where he proved to be an upgrade over a disappointing Konz. He saw 230 snaps in 2011 at the position as an injury replacement for Todd McClure during the first four games. Hawley did wind up playing over 900 snaps that season, but the majority of the remainder came at right guard, a role he struggled in.
It means that Hawley in total in his career has less than 800 snaps played at center, which doesn’t even represent a full season’s worth of games. It’s hard to imagine an NFL team coveting a player that is as unproven, relatively speaking, as Hawley is at the position. His past playing right guard adds versatility, but considering that Hawley was a poor fit at the position makes that added value minimal.
If there is one asset that Hawley possesses that other teams may want, it is youth. He is only 25, when most of the other free agent centers around the league are 28 or above. However, age isn’t as big a negative with centers as it can be at other positions in free agency, since centers tend to have the longest careers of anybody on the offensive line. McClure retired just after his 36th birthday and impending free agent Brad Meester of the Jacksonville Jaguars is hanging it up just before he turns 37 this offseason. Such longevity would mean that if Hawley is good enough, he could wind up playing a decade or more as a starter with the Falcons or another team. But it also means that team’s don’t have to avoid a free agent on the wrong side of 30 because such a player could still play several years for them. However, there are enough good centers that will be free agents that are on the right side of the 30: Alex Mack, Brian De La Puente, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Ryan Wendell to name several. And all have more experience than Hawley playing the position.
Those factors are why I think it’s more likely that Pauline’s source refers to the idea that the Falcons may not be completely sold on bringing Hawley back as the reason why his return is only given a 50 percent chance of occurring.
If that is the case, then I’m not sure why the Falcons have come to that conclusion.
It’s clear that the Falcons still believe in Konz. Comments made by general manager Thomas Dimitroff earlier this offseason could be construed into thinking that the team believes that if they can fix the right guard position, then Konz could become more effective starter at center. I’m not sure I buy completely into that logic since Hawley managed to play better than Konz with worse play at right guard.
Collectively over the first 10 weeks of the season, Konz earned a -15.1 grade from Pro Football Focus at center. Garrett Reynolds played beside him and earned a +3.9 grade during that span. Over the final seven games, Hawley’s grade at center was -2.0. Most of that came with Konz beside him earning a -14.6 grade at right guard. Harland Gunn (+1.2) and Garrett Reynolds (-0.7) also got snaps there.
But if the Falcons do follow that line of logic, their thought process may be that signing a top free agent right guard could give Konz the boost and stability he needs. And despite other teams’ interest in Hawley not expected to be that high, he’ll still likely command an increase in salary nonetheless. And depending on how much that increase is could be a significant factor in whether Hawley returns to Atlanta.
Last offseason, the Falcons re-signed Reynolds to a two-year contract worth about $2.6 million. It was an upgrade in pay that signified Reynolds was considered a starter by the team, but not to the degree where the team showed any long-term commitment to him. Could the Falcons be looking to get Hawley to agree to a similar deal? Perhaps, and thus maybe it does mean that Hawley could seek greener pastures elsewhere.
It’s clear that if Hawley returns to Atlanta, there’s a good possibility that he won’t be handed the starting center job, having to compete with Konz for the role. And it’s clear that regardless of how much bad tape Konz produces, the team is not ready to give up on him. Perhaps Hawley could get a better deal elsewhere, and a much stronger long-term commitment from another team.
A team like the St. Louis Rams could wind up a good landing spot for Hawley. That team is looking to dump their current center, Scott Wells, due to cap purposes and durability concerns. Tim Barnes replaced an injured Wells down the stretch in 2013, and did not show enough to be considered the incumbent. The Rams offensive line coach is former Falcons position coach Paul Boudreau, who coached Hawley during his first two seasons in Atlanta.
The Rams do have 2013 fourth-round pick Barrett Jones also on the roster, who redshirted last season. Jones played guard, center and tackle during his career at Alabama, thus being a versatile asset for the Rams moving forward. With left guard Chris Williams hitting free agency and right guard Harvey Dahl being a potential cap casualty, Jones’ immediate future may lie at guard rather than center. If the Rams were to bring in a player like Hawley, it would give them a more proven player at center and allow Jones to man one of those potentially vacant guard spots.
St. Louis could potentially offer Hawley something that he may not have in Atlanta: faith and comfort. There, he may not have to worry as much about looking over his shoulder in fear of a lesser player taking his job because that would make the front office look better. In St. Louis, Hawley may have a better chance of earning the job long-term, an opportunity Atlanta seems reluctant to give him.
So in the end, it may be a bit of both in that Hawley could find a better opportunity with a new team and the Falcons not being completely sold on him as why the team’s chance of re-signing him are 50-50. Thus, it may be harder for the Falcons to retain Hawley than some might think.