There are mixed feelings among fans and analysts regarding the Falcons offensive line — for obvious reasons. Fans tend to be more optimistic, especially considering the number of unproven linemen on Atlanta’s roster. Analysts tend to be more pessimistic for the exact same reason. Generally, offensive linemen take several seasons to acclimate to NFL caliber defenses, which is why I have little faith in the Falcons’ unit.
Sure, Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom are reliable players, but Kaleb McGary will have to take a sizeable leap to solidify the right side of the offensive line. Then, there are two positions — center and left guard — that are completely up for grabs, and those who will compete have no track record or a poor one. This is the exact talking point PFF’s Steve Palazzolo makes when designating the Falcons’ offensive line the 24th-best unit.
The Falcons’ offensive line has tapered off in recent years, and the unit ranks just 21st in pass-blocking grade over the last two years.
Left tackle Jake Matthews is as steady as it gets, grading out at 70.0 or better in every year since 2014. He ranks as a top-notch pass protector, slotting in at eighth out of 95 qualifiers in pass-blocking grade on true pass sets over the past three years (82.2). Matthews is closer to the middle of the pack as a run blocker, though he’s done his best work on zone runs and should fit into the new system in Atlanta.
At right tackle, 2019 first rounder Kaleb McGary took a step forward last season. His overall grade improved from 53.0 to 64.3, but he has still graded in the 50.0s in pass protection in his two NFL seasons. He’s the opposite of Matthews, with just the 73rd best grade on zone runs. But Year 3 offensive linemen often take a big step forward, so a breakout is not out of the question for McGary.
Fellow 2019 first-rounder Chris Lindstrom has progressed nicely, as his 77.1 overall grade ranked ninth among guards last season. The left guard spot will have a new look, with James Carpenter moving on after two subpar years in Atlanta. Third-rounder Jalen Mayfield is expected to start, but he’s a project who played about 1,000 college snaps with mediocre grading despite showing good strength.
The biggest question up front is who replaces Alex Mack, the second highest-graded center in the NFL since he joined Atlanta in 2016. Matt Hennessy, a 2020 third-rounder, will get the first crack at it after grading out at just 47.0 on 225 snaps at left guard and center as a rookie. The Falcons also drafted Drew Dalman in the fourth round out of Stanford, an excellent outside zone fit who may have issues in pass protection after never grading above 74.0 in college.
The Falcons head into 2021 with two reliable starters and 2.5 question marks, so their final ranking will be determined by how well the youth progresses.
The last line is the most important; there are 2.5 question marks — McGary, center, and left guard. The success of this team will hinder on the defense as a whole, but the offensive line could derail this season much faster. Late in games, if the offensive line cannot protect Matt Ryan in must-score situations, there will be many one-score losses on the schedule again. I believe that Mayfield is fully capable of being an above average run blocker in his first season, but his pass sets need work. As for center, Hennessy and Dalman are perfect schematic fits, but only time will tell if they can adjust to the NFL. 24th is about where I would have the unit with the chance to jump several spots “determined by how well the youth progresses.”