In our fourth installment of this series, we move to perhaps the most critical battle of them all and definitely the most competitive — left guard. The Falcons offensive line needs to improve after three straight seasons of lackadaisical performances, and the pieces are in place for them to do so. However, to return to their 2016 level of dominance, one of these candidates will have to establish themselves as a more than competent starter. If you missed any of the previous parts to this series, click the links below.
James Carpenter, a former first-round pick that the Falcons signed in free agency before last season, is the incumbent to this competition. He was named the starting left guard in 2019. However, he missed five games, and even when he was on the field, he wasn’t very reliable. PFF gave him an overall rating of 45.3, which was by far the worst mark of his career. The Falcons are hoping he can bounce back in his second year with the team, and a shortened offseason with no preseason games should make him the early favorite to earn the job for Week 1.
As many bad general managers do, instead of signing one high-quality player to start, Thomas Dimitroff went out and overpaid two below-average guards to compete. The result was a lot of poor play. Jamon Brown was the other offensive line signing last offseason, and he lost the competition for the left guard spot to Carpenter. However, after Chris Lindstrom landed on the IR following a broken foot in Week 1, Brown was thrust into action. The former Giant was just as ineffective in both pass and run blocking, grading out as a 53.2 overall, according to PFF. Like Carpenter, it was the worst PFF grade of his career, so hopefully, he can progress in his second year with the Falcons. Still, Brown hasn’t been much more than a quality backup over his career.
The most intriguing candidate for the left guard job is rookie third-round pick, Matt Hennessy. The former Temple Owl began his college career as an offensive tackle but moved to center, where he became one of the best pass blockers in college football. Hennessy was drafted to be the heir apparent to Alex Mack, and the two have very similar athletic profiles. However, he will be in the competition at left guard as a rookie. With there being a shortened offseason and no preseason games, it’s going to take some incredible practices for Hennessy to become the starter, but judging by how James Carpenter and Jamon Brown looked last year, I wouldn’t count it out.
Matt Gono is another interesting candidate. The offensive tackle out of Wesley College was an undrafted free agent in 2018 and spent most of that year on the practice squad. However, the coaches have always been impressed by him, and he ended up making the 53-man roster last year, appearing in 5 games. Only 24-years-old, Gono possesses a lot of potential, and the Falcons have said they will give him the opportunity to move in and compete for the starting left guard job.
Wrapping up the competition is a 28-year-old veteran with experience across the offensive line for several different teams. Justin McCray played in 15 games last year for Cleveland, starting in four of them. Before that, he played two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, appearing in 25 games combined, including 13 starts. Based on the contract he signed with Atlanta, they view him as a versatile backup, but given that there is no clear-cut starter, McCray will have an honest chance to win the job at left guard.