You can’t win in this league without protecting your quarterback, and I’ll prove it to you. Over the past three seasons, Ryan has been sacked 42, 48, and 41 times respectively. Although sacks are a revealing statistic, pressures tell the whole story. Ryan faced 174 pressures in 2019, good for 28th in the league and 167 pressures in 2020, good for 24th in the league. There are plenty of reasons for the egregious numbers. The offensive line was porous, the offensive coordinator became predictable, and Ryan probably held the ball too long a time or two.
The Falcons offense will only go as far as the offensive line takes them, and Arthur Smith knows that too, “Obviously, we’re going to go as the line goes.” Atlanta added two offensive linemen in the draft in third-round pick Jalen Mayfield and fourth-round pick Drew Dalman. Terry Fontenot also signed Josh Andrews and gave Matt Gono a second-round tender, but I believe there’s a better chance that two rookies start at left guard and center than not.
Dalman will battle Matt Hennessey for the starting center position, and I believe the former Stanford Cardinal has the inside track. “He’s [Dalman] coming in running a system that was very similar to a NFL system,” Ledford said via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a lot of similarities there, so they are used to that…” Dalman ran the show in college, making all the calls and getting the Stanford offensive line to the right blocking assignments because he knew the offense inside and out.
Playing center as a rookie can be challenging for all of these reasons, but Ledford believes it’s possible, and only time will tell if Dalman has what it takes. “I don’t feel, I’m not apprehensive at all in saying that … feel good about saying yes, a rookie can go in there play center in the NFL his first year,” Ledford said. “I think that obviously you have to see that, once they get here. Once you put them in certain situations and see how they kind of progress throughout our offseason and in camp to see how they handle all of that.”
Ledford acknowledged Hennessey in the limited snaps he took in 2020, “I’ve been real impressed with Matt Hennessy,” Ledford said, but all signs point to Dalman starting if he can grasp the offensive system fast enough. The two-man competition at center will be a constant talking point throughout the offseason, but I believe Dalman has the intangibles to win the job as a rookie.
The battle for left guard is much more open than center because of the relative bodies competing — Jalen Mayfield, Matt Gono, Josh Andrews, and Dalman. Ledford has said the five-best linemen would play, which means in Hennessey beats Dalman out, there’s still a chance he starts next to him at guard. But I believe Mayfield has the inside track to start at left guard as Arthur Smith said the Falcons are confident in the development plan set forth for the former Michigan Wolverine.
In my eyes, the new regime will forfeit a tie between players to the ones they brought in. Mayfield and Dalman were selected with the future outlook of them starting at left guard and center; there are no questions about that. Chris Lindstrom will be one of the league’s best guards; Smith and Fontenot knew that coming into the offseason. The plan always was to find future starters at the other positions along the offensive line.
The front office did a respectable job of bringing in competition at each position, but it’s clear to me that the new regime’s first two offensive line selections were well-thought-out with the intention they could start as early as 2021. Two rookies starting could scare some away, but if the Falcons come out of training camp with Mayfield and Dalman starting, it’s because they beat out the litany of other linemen, not because the coaching staff is favoring their draft picks.