We continue our roster breakdown with the most important group on the offense. If you’ve missed our first three installments of this series, click the links below:
I’ll begin with the two stalwarts of the offensive line that have been around for years — Jake Matthews and Alex Mack. Matthews may not receive the respect that some of the best tackles in the league do, but all he’s done is protect Matt Ryan’s blindside while missing just one game (in his rookie season) in his entire six-year career. No, Matthews might not be the best left tackle in football, but there is a lot of value in being a top-seven player at your position that is consistently healthy.
Mack, entering his age-34 season and the last year of his contract, has been in the conversation for the best center in the game since the Falcons signed him in 2016. His impact was immediately felt, and while he had a bit of a down year in 2019, I believe that was mostly attributed to an early-season elbow injury rather than a result of his age. Mack still believes he has a lot left in the tank, and this is a prove-it year of sorts for the veteran since he will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
On the right side of the line, the Falcons have their two rookies from last season. Judging by the testimonies from his teammates, Chris Lindstrom is going to be a star at guard in the NFL. The rookie was picked 14th overall last year but suffered a broken foot in Week 1 that landed him on IR. However, he did return for the last four games, and it’s no coincidence that the Falcons offense thrived on their way to a 4-0 record. Nobody should be doubting this young man heading into his second season.
The same cannot be said about Kaleb McGary. The 31st overall pick out of Washington did end up starting in all 16 games for the Falcons, which is promising, especially considering he missed a ton of time during the offseason after undergoing a minor heart procedure. However, his performance was up and down, as he allowed an abysmal 13 sacks on the season, grading out as the 34th best right tackle out of 38 qualifiers, according to Pro Football Focus. The Falcons are hoping for substantial improvement in his second season, or that trade up to acquire him last year is going to look like a massive bust.
The starting left guard job will be an open competition this offseason. Last year, James Carpenter manned the position but was uninspiring, to say the least. Jamon Brown took over for Chris Lindstrom at right guard while he was on IR, but he wasn’t much better than Carpenter — if at all. Still, both of them will be in the conversation at left guard to start the season, but they will have even more competition.
Rookie Matt Hennessy was drafted as Alex Mack’s eventual replacement, but he will be pushing for the starting left guard job in his first year. There’s also Matt Gono, an undrafted free agent that made the Falcons roster last season as a swing tackle. On top of that, the Falcons signed Justin McCray this offseason. He has plenty of starting experience with several teams, and with no clear-cut starter, he will be in the mix as well.
Whoever doesn’t win the job as the starting left guard (four players) will be thrust into a backup role. Matt Hennessy can serve as a second-string left guard and center, Matt Gono has experience as a swing tackle, Justin McCray has played all over the line in his career, and of course, both Jamon Brown and James Carpenter can man either guard position if needed.
The Falcons also re-signed John Wetzel, who is a versatile offensive lineman that has bounced around from the active roster to the practice squad, and they still have Sean Harlow, a former fourth-round pick that can fill in across various positions on the line. They added four undrafted free agents that will be competing for a spot on the roster as well — Austin Capps, a center out of Arkansas, Scottie Dill, a tackle out of Memphis, Justin Gooseberry, a guard out of Rice, and Evin Ksiezarczyk, a tackle out of Buffalo.
The offensive line has been a position group that has haunted the Falcons since they made their Super Bowl run back in 2016, but that should not be the case in 2020. They have a lot of talent in their starting unit and youthful depth across the line. If this unit reaches its full potential, the sky is the limit for Atlanta’s offense.