One of the most interesting position battles has to be the one surrounding Jalen Mayfield at left guard. The offensive line isn’t a fascinating position group to watch, but no Falcons fan could miss the rookie turnstile from Michigan, who constantly let Matt Ryan take hits last year. To be fair, the unit as a whole was pretty bad.
Atlanta’s offensive front surrendered 40 sacks last year, and three of the five starters were some of the worst pass protectors in the league. Mayfield was statistically the worst lineman in pass sets. Granted, switching positions along the line is difficult, especially considering he didn’t just kick inside from left tackle; he’s playing on the opposite side as well. However, that isn’t an excuse for the coaching staff to trot him back out there just because they spent a third-round pick on him. So, the team had to add some form of competition.
Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkinson were signed during free agency as both can compete for snaps at multiple positions, one being left guard. However, another player could be the surprise of the offseason — Justin Shaffer.
Shaffer was the Falcons’ No. 190 overall selection. He was a two-year starter for the Dawgs and helped them to a National Championship. He’s a powerful guard that certainly has a shot at unseating Mayfield. Shaffer bodes well in a run-centric offense, though many believe him to be a better gap scheme fit than zone. Still, his run-blocking ability is undeniable. I actually think the former Dawg has a shot at starting, but that’s more of an indictment of Mayfield. And I’m not the only one who says he could earn some snaps in his rookie year. Chad Reuter believes Shaffer is one of a dozen Day 3 selections with the potential to push for starting reps. And he’s not the only one.
“When you think about Justin, you think about what he went against every day at practice,” offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford said. “And not just in practice, but in the weight room, too, and all the competitive things that you would go through in a program. He’s doing it side-by-side all those guys, competing with them.”
Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt were two first-round picks in the 2022 NFL draft and Jalen Carter is a future first-rounder. All of whom Shaffer competed with regularly. That’s not to mention Travon Walker, Quay Walker, and Nakobe Dean when the situation arose in practice. Moreover, Shaffer faced stiff competition week in and week out in the SEC.
“When I talk about anchor I talk about guys in pass protection who are not getting driven back into the pocket, who are not getting driven back into the quarterback,” Falcons area scout Shepley Heard explained. “It’s hard to find that with guys who are that big and that strong, especially playing in the SEC when you’re going against top talent week in and week out, but you’re stoning guys at the line of scrimmage and you’re able to lock on and sustain them. Those are the players where you sit there and think, ‘OK. This is going to translate to the NFL.'”
There’s always a learning curve at the professional level, especially considering Shaffer is a sixth-round pick. Still, the staff and front office seem unbothered by the notion that late-round selections can’t have immediate and worthwhile contributions.
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