Former Falcons first-round pick dubbed NFL’s most improved player

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The Falcons’ offensive line went from worst to first in just one offseason. Now, I am embellishing a little bit. They weren’t the absolute worst unit last year, and they aren’t the absolute best this year. But they went from a bottom-five group to arguably a top-five group. Personnel changes along the Falcons front certainly have contributed to that improvement.

Elijah Wilkinson has been a revelation over Jalen Mayfield, who was the very worst offensive lineman in pass sets last season. It’s not that Wilkinson is playing at some All-Pro level; he’s just miles better than Mayfield. Drew Dalman has also been an improvement over Matt Hennessy, but the discrepancy in production at center isn’t nearly as large as it is at left guard.

However, other facets of the unit contributed to the turnaround. Arthur Smith’s diverse run scheme plays a part, but a factor that might go a little more unnoticed is the internal improvements. Chris Lindstrom has taken his game to an entirely different level and will likely garner All-Pro consideration this year, but Kaleb McGary‘s improvement is greater than any single member of this team, and Nate Tice of The Athletic believes he’s one of the most improved players across the entire league.

“If you asked me a year ago what I thought of McGary, I’d have told you that I would be surprised if he could even make a roster after his rookie contract ended. But, with some help from a well-coached Falcons scheme, McGary has looked like a solid-to-above-average starter this year. He is playing with more confidence and has been a true plus in the run game.”

After not having his fifth-year option exercised, Atlanta’s former first-round pick has looked like a completely different player this season. A couple of weeks ago, I did a piece on the team’s biggest surprise of the season, and it was McGary. He’s in his fourth season as a pro and made little progress in his development in the prior three seasons. During the offseason, Arthur Smith, who doesn’t throw around compliments too often, had this to say about the fourth-year right tackle.

“I’m proud of Kaleb.”

“He has come a long way.”

“He’s playing some pretty good football right now.”

There are tangible results, and the offense’s success can primarily be credited to the offensive line’s drastic improvement; it’s been the primary catalyst of Smith’s unit ranking near the top in most offensive metrics — 8th in scoring (24.3), 3rd in rushing yards per game (165.2), and 9th in rushing yards per attempt (4.9). Coming into Week 7, the Falcons also rank 2nd in the league in rushing yards before contact, behind only the Baltimore Ravens.

McGary was the third-highest-graded player on the entire team in Week 4 against the Browns. His play was so outstanding that game that he earned PFF’s Team of the Week honors, along with teammate Chris Lindstrom. The Falcons’ offensive turnaround can be attributed to many factors, but you can’t mention the improvement without crediting Kaleb McGary.

Photographer: Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

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