The Falcons did absolutely nothing to seriously upgrade the offensive line this offseason, which was one of the worst units in football last season. Terry Fontenot drafted Justin Shaffer on Day 3, and though he’s expected to push Jalen Mayfield at left guard, nobody is expecting a sixth-round pick to start. Fontenot also added Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkerson to bolster the tackle position, given Kaleb McGary‘s less-than-stellar play. Essentially, it seems the Falcons are content running it back with the same starting five big uglies up front, which is egregious. It’s the team’s single biggest positional need at this point in the offseason.
The Falcons boast one of the worst lines in football. After surrendering 40 sacks last year, Atlanta is choosing to run it back with essentially the same squad. They did add to the position through the draft and free agency, but the front office didn’t invest heavily. Justin Shaffer was selected in the sixth round and is set to compete at left guard. Germain Ifedi and Elijah Wilkerson were brought in to compete with Kaleb McGary at right tackle. And Matt Hennessy‘s competition will be drawn from last year’s draft class in Drew Dalman.
So there is competition, but instead of iron sharpening iron, it’s more like lead sharpening lead. The Falcons are basically trotting out the same starting five, three of whom were some of the worst pass protectors in the league. Mayfield is the very worst in pass sets, Hennessy is the sixth-worst, and McGary rounds out the group as the ninth-worst lineman in pass protection. That’s three starters in the bottom ten. That’s a problem.
Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have been adamant regarding their team’s pursuit of winning and not tanking, but sending Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder out there behind this group suggests otherwise. Despite the sunken cost in Mayfield, the Falcons need to add a starting-caliber guard; he’s the weakest link of the unit… by far.
Every Falcons fan knows how poorly the former third-round pick played during his rookie year. But in case you don’t, here are a few clips:
Jalen Mayfield received a 90+ PFF Grade from this game… pic.twitter.com/1O6Rj3rN2H
— Luke Carr (TD4LC) (@LukeCarrNFL) November 15, 2021
This wasn’t Fletcher Cox or Javon Hargrave that did this to Jalen Mayfield. This was Hassan Ridgeway. Hassan Ridgeway had his way with Mayfield here. pic.twitter.com/QmQBCpkb8u
— Matt Karoly (@mattkaroly) September 13, 2021
Javon Hargrave won an NFL-high 48% of his pass-rush snaps in Week 1.
Prayers up for Jalen Mayfield & Atlanta's interior offensive line. pic.twitter.com/TCRHG2TfwD
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) September 13, 2021
Jalen Mayfield has to get lower, no way you can fight with hands up high against Suh. Plant has to be way better. pic.twitter.com/7nDCygoCxi
— Luke Carr (TD4LC) (@LukeCarrNFL) December 5, 2021
I might be wrong but I think Jalen Mayfield failed to even touch Arden Key rushing over the inside pic.twitter.com/EVQn9eT6NM
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) December 20, 2021
It’s nearly impossible to be the absolute worst pass protecting guard in football, but Mayfield takes that crown. I will say, he was pretty decent as a run blocker, and there’s reason to believe the former Michigan Wolverine will improve in 2022.
First, Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder are much more mobile than Matt Ryan, which should help Mayfield. Having a year of NFL experience under his belt should also prove helpful. Most of all, Arthur Smith’s desire to be more run-centric and build the play action passing game off of it should keep pass rushers on their heels, giving Mayfield a better chance in pass sets.
However, marginal improvements won’t do. If Mayfield gets slightly better, he might become the second- or third-worst guard in pass sets, and that’s not going to get it done. Arjun Menon of PFF had a few interesting charts that suggest expected improvements.
Looked at some NFL guard stuff and found something I thought was interesting. Guards who played that position in college typically started their career better than tackle-guard converts in year 1, but the tackle-guard converts do a bit better in years 2 and 3. pic.twitter.com/UwNKX7FbJJ
— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) May 17, 2022
This is from the average guard’s perspective, and Mayfield was well below that. It is still encouraging to see that college tackles who kick inside should have a higher percentage WAR increase from their first to second seasons, compared to college guards who don’t change positions. I’m still bearish on Mayfield, but stranger things have happened; he could very well become a serviceable guard in this league.
Photographer: David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire