This is the fifth of a ten-part series reviewing the Falcons season and taking a look at the future outlook position-by-position. If you missed any other installments, be sure to check them out.
We finish our offensive breakdown and outlook with the big uglies up front, who were undoubtedly the biggest source of failure for this group overall. When the Falcons brought in Arthur Smith and Dwayne Ledford to reshape Atlanta’s middling offensive line and run game, many believed they’d be able to elevate this unit beyond their talent level — they were wrong.
Terry Fontenot drafted Jalen Mayfield in the third round and Drew Dalman in the fourth round, but neither rookie made a difference in their first season. The Falcons pedestrian run game was caused by a lack of push along the line of scrimmage; Atlanta rushers averaged just 2.1 yards per carry before contact — fourth-worst in the NFL.
Matt Ryan‘s worst statistical year was caused by a decline in his own play, lack of receiving options, but most of all, the putrid play of the offensive line. Ryan was pressured on over a quarter of his dropbacks, which was the third-worst in the league. This group was easily bottom-three in pass sets, and their aging quarterback took a beating for it.
Mayfield was the weakest link on the line and arguably the worst offensive lineman in the league this year, and my rookie review of him isn’t inspiring.
The third-round pick out of Michigan allowed 11 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, and 25 hurries in 16 starts.
Mayfield has many things to improve in his pass sets. His anchor could use bolstering, which should come as his body develops with an entire offseason of training. His initial punch and hand placement need to be much more consistent. Mayfield’s ability to identify twists and stunts will come with experience, but it was awful in 2021. He also needs to improve his contact balance and ability to move his feet while engaged with defenders. It might be easier to list the things that he doesn’t need to work on.
The next worst offensive lineman is a toss-up, in my opinion. Kaleb McGary and Matt Hennessy were both terrible in spurts. The former gave up nine sacks, ten quarterback hits, and 22 quarterback hurries in his third season as a professional. McGary is a better run blocker than pass protector, but he just hasn’t ascended nearly enough to give the Falcons confidence in exercising his fifth-year option. I wouldn’t be shocked if Fontenot found his future replacement in this year’s draft.
On the other hand, Hennessy finished his first full season as a starter and surrendered three sacks, one quarterback hit, and nearly 30 quarterback hurries. The former third-round pick doesn’t have the luxury as Mayfield and Dalman of being one of this regime’s “guys,” so his leash might not be as long as many believe. Hennessy’s anchor in pass sets is detrimental for a quarterback like Matt Ryan, who steps up into pockets, but there are plenty of things for him to work on this offseason.
Moving on to the two pieces of this line whose starting spots in 2022 are secure — Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom. Matthews gave up three sacks, five quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback hurries. The veteran left tackle has long been an underwhelming run blocker, but his pass protection is as good as ever. Matthews will absolutely be Arthur Smith’s left tackle for the remainder of his contract.
Lindstrom had his best season as a professional in 2022. He didn’t allow a single sack and was a road-grader in the run game. The former first-round pick has officially taken the crown from Matthews as the Falcons’ best offensive linemen; he’ll be one of Smith’s favorite players for a long time to come.
It isn’t normal for a team to return all five starters along the offensive line, but the Falcons’ five starters are all under contract next season. That kind of continuity is valuable, especially for an offensive line. However, that shouldn’t guarantee Mayfield, Hennessy, and McGary’s return as starters.
Drew Dalman should compete with Hennessy for the starting center position, but as the roster stands, the Falcons don’t have competent linemen to compete with Mayfield and McGary. Dalman does have the versatility to play guard and center, but I’m not sure the Falcons will be happy with a Dalman-Mayfield competition at left guard. McGary is someone who doesn’t need to be upgraded as badly as Mayfield, but the staff has stated multiple times they want competition at every position.
Mayfield is the one member of this line that is most likely to be replaced. It makes the most sense for the Falcons to bring in a veteran (not Josh Andrews) to compete for the starting left guard position. However, an entire offseason of strength and conditioning should improve Mayfield’s performance alone. Combined with a better understanding of footwork and hand placement, the former Michigan Wolverine should be in line for some improvement. Still, the Falcons can’t enter the 2022 season without addressing the offensive line.
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