The first question.... should we really be bummed out about our line heading into the new season? No doubt, their play left a lot to be desired last season. They had three pretty good years in 2008-2010 but then fell flat in 2011.
The verdict from our braintrust was that it was a coaching issue as much as a personnel issue. Line coach Paul Boudreau was sacked. On the personnel side, the right guard position was identified as the weakest link in the chain. Vince Manuwai was signed to plug that gap.
My take: I agree with the decision. Boudreau was a highly experienced coach who did well in 2008-2010, but he really dropped the ball badly last year. Our linemen simply weren't well prepared and didn't play fundamentally sound football. They were up high all season, getting no leverage and getting pushed back into the backfield. Michael Turner typically had first contact a yard behind the line. If he made three yards after contact, that was still only good enough for a two yard gain.
I suspect that Boudreau had a hand in going with two older journeymen (no upside) rather than two of our own prospects last year. Throw in the awful idea to play Sam Baker at right guard when he had only had one full practice after his back surgery, and the decision to make a coaching change seems pretty obvious.
And Manuwai is an upgrade over any of Kynan Forney, Harvey Dahl, Garrett Reynolds or Joe Hawley at the right guard position. Great move there. Manuwai and Clabo provide a whole lot of beef on the right side.
Second question: what's the answer at left tackle? The team has publicly stood behind Sam Baker, noting that he played through injury all year. (Key: he was experiencing back problems even in preseason. He tried to play through it, was horrible, and finally opted to have surgery when it became obvious that he wasn't capable of getting the job done otherwise.)
Fortunately, Will Svitek stepped up in Baker's absence last year and showed that he can be a competent left tackle. He may not be Pro Bowl material, but his play (including utterly shutting down Jared Allen) was good enough to put him above average among starting LTs. If it comes down to it, we do have a Plan B.
Many of us want to see an upgrade in free agency, particularly Marcus McNeill. And yes, McNeill backed up by Svitek does have a pretty sweet sound to it. But will it happen?
My take: don't count on it. The odds are against it. McNeill is visiting many other teams and will likely have other options. Even if we move out Baker to clear cap room, we'll be hard pressed to fit McNeill under the cap. Another team could easily outspend us and land the free agent.
As for Baker, never mind his skill level. We're talking about a 300-pound man who makes a living throwing his body into other large people and has already had two back surgeries in the last four years. Do we really expect him to hold up the entire season without more health concerns?
I wouldn't bet on it. But I do have confidence in Svitek. I'd hope that the team would forget about trying to work Mike Johnson at guard and let him practice at tackle instead. He has the potential to be our future left tackle - he did pave the way for a national championship at Alabama at LT, after all. If Baker ended up on IR, Svitek backed up by Johnson could work, *if* the coaches do practice Johnson at tackle.
Third question... do we use one of those top draft picks on a lineman?
A lot of "big name" mock drafts now have the Falcons going with an offensive lineman at the #55 pick. We're talking about a late second rounder here, so just about anything is possible. But I wouldn't be so hasty as to identify the OL as the most likely area that Dimitroff will target with our top pick.
Under Mike Smith, the Falcons have tried to go with nine offensive linemen on the roster when possible. Counting Baker and Jackson, we currently have ten. Even if Baker does become a cap casualty or lands on IR in preseason, someone else would have to go to make room for an incoming rookie - who would spend 2012 and likely 2013 on the bench anyway.
So suppose we did take a second round lineman to groom as a future LT. The most likely casualty would be that Jackson returns to the practice squad this season. Johnson would be worked as a backup guard rather than potentially returning him to tackle (where he played at Alabama).
If we get the right guy, he might be an upgrade. But would it be enough of an upgrade to be worth spending the second or third round pick? Probably not. We have more obvious needs elsewhere, and Dimitroff openly admits he's a needs-based GM in the draft.
My take: the main roster is probably fine as it is. Where we really need to reload is on the practice squad. We lost Rob Bruggeman when we opted to bring back Boudreau favorite Brett Romberg. We lost Jose Valdez to our former QB coach when we opted to sign Kirk Chambers rather than promote Valdez. If Jackson makes the main roster, the developmental pool will be empty.
So look for plenty of undrafted free agents and perhaps a late rounder (such as the compensatory pick). But I do hope that Dimitroff will address more important needs with the earlier picks.
The big picture... the whole thing really hinges on Pat Hill doing a better job preparing his men than Boudreau did last year. If Hill can get it done, we'll be fine. One potential combination: we might end up with Svitek, Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, Manuwai and Tyson Clabo as the starting five, backed up by Johnson, McClure, Jackson and Reynolds.
That's actually a pretty darn good group. But it still depends on new coach Pat Hill having them ready to go. Even in December, last year's team looked like it was still in preseason mode. Hill will have to have them much more prepared this year.