Posted on: April 22, 2012 4:19 pm
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.
Posted on: October 21, 2008 4:30 pm
(aka Where The Previews Went Wrong, part two...)
The emergence of the young players on the Falcon offensive line has been one of my favorite topics over the last two seasons. The overhaul of this unit has been two years in the making, and this young group has been the main beneficiary of the new coaching staff. Last year's staff had a rookie head coach in Petrino, a rookie offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, and a rookie offensive line coach in Mike Summers. None of them were up to NFL standards. But this year's coaching staff has a grizzled veteran for a line coach, an experienced offensive coordinator (who understands the concept of making adjustments, unlike last year's staff), and a no-nonsense but approachable head coach. In particular, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has been around a long time and knows what he's doing. He inherited a roster filled with young linemen, and he has done very well with their development.
The performance of this group might be a surprise to the national media (who don't pay much attention), but for those around Flowery Branch it really is no surprise at all. We've known for years that Tyson Clabo was a gem who was ready to be a true starter - at either guard or tackle. Add three-time All-American Sam Baker as a first round draft pick, a season of experience for 2007 rookie Justin Blalock, and valuable game experience for several other prospects, and it should have been pretty obvious that things were improving for this unit.
At least it was clear to us. Yet every offseason roundup and preview declared the Falcon line to be a hopeless bunch in need of a massive overhaul and one of the team's most critical weaknesses. That made no sense to me at all then, and obviously it doesn't ring true now.
Here's a news flash for anyone in the national media that still doesn't get it: the Falcons have even more young prospects. Quinn Ojinnaka played well at left tackle last season and can play any position on the line if needed. Renardo Foster, D'Anthony Batiste, and Pat McCoy are still works in progress, but any of them might figure into the team's plans for 2009 as well.
I've written quite a bit about the young players on the Falcon roster during training camps, minicamps, and the 2007 and 2008 seasons. A lot of those pieces are no longer available on the message board. The one below was one of my personal favorites because it didn't get a particularly favorable response at the time. The "general consensus" was that the line is horrible, so anyone who says otherwise must be wrong. (The odd thing about that: I don't remember seeing the so-called general consensus at minicamp or training camp.)
A few Falcon die-hards agreed, but most readers simply wondered what flavor of Kool-Aid you'd have to drink to think the line was remotely close to competent.
Of course, I didn't have it pegged completely either. Forney was released rather than traded. McClure bulked up a little more and had no trouble hanging on to his starting job. Foster is still out, though he'll be coming off the PUP list this week.
And I had figured that the team would return Clabo to guard rather than keep him at right tackle. Instead, backup tackle Harvey Dahl broke through by switching to guard and won the starting job working next to Clabo. (Dahl was one of three prospects the Falcons picked up from other teams after the injuries started piling up. He was taken from San Francisco's practice squad and did not appear for the Falcons at all until the season finale against Seattle.)
That one surprised everybody - even those of us serving up the Kool-Aid on a hillside in Flowery Branch...
Here's the piece from early April:
The pre-draft minicamp starts today. I'll go out on a limb and say that I believe the coaches will like what they see from the younger players we have on the offensive line.
The regulars here know that I like a lot of the prospects, but for the newer folks on this board, that might be a surprise. The popular opinion is that the Falcons have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.
It's easy to understand why from looking at last year's stats: 47 sacks allowed (2.94 per game, tied-25th in NFL, league average = 2.15), one sack allowed per 12.8 pass plays called (24th in NFL, league average = one sack per 16.46 pass plays), 95 rushing yards per game (26th), and 3.94 yards per carry (T-20th).
Yep, that's certainly a sub-par set of numbers. But take another look at the line on a game by game basis. And here's the important part: don't hold the poor performance of the original lineup that started the season against the up-and-coming kids who finished it.
The original starters were healthy and played the first five games. In those games, they averaged 3.6 sacks allowed per game - which would be the worst in NFL if extended over the full season, with 9.9% of all pass calls resulting in a sack (one per 10.1 pass plays called, also worst in the NFL).
Twice they had first and goal inside the one yard line and could not pound in a short yardage run for a score. The longest run during that stretch was a special teams play - 49 yards on a fake punt. The "real" offense averaged just 81.8 yards per game on the ground and 3.325 yards per carry - both of which would rank 30th in the NFL if extended over the full season.
So without a doubt, the line left a lot to be desired in the first five games under Petrino. And then the injuries started kicking in.
Over the next eight games, the younger players started getting some experience. With Gandy hurt, Renardo Foster got his first starts - until he too got hurt. Tyson Clabo had his first playing time at tackle as well (he played last year at guard). Rookie guard Justin Blalock added to his game total, and D'Anthony Batiste and Quinn Ojinnaka got to play the first games of their careers.
The youngsters certainly had their growing pains, but the results still beat the original starting lineup: in that span, the team allowed 3 sacks per game (compared to 3.6 for the first five games), 3.86 yards per carry (vs 3.69), and one sack allowed per 13.8 pass calls (vs one sack per 10.1 pass calls.)
And then came the watershed moment that proved to be the breakthrough for the line: Arkansas hired themselves a new head coach.
For the Falcon line, the difference was night vs day. The line (with Clabo and Ojinnaka at tackle, Batiste, Blalock and Forney splitting time at guard, and McClure at center) gave up just 1.67 sacks per game, with only 5.6% of the pass calls resulting in sacks. On the ground, the offense averaged 4.61 yards per rushing attempt. Compare those numbers to the league averages of 2.15 sacks per game, 6.1% of pass calls resulting in sacks, and 4.06 yards per carry.
It's a scary thought, but Clabo, Ojinnaka, Blalock, and Batiste ended up becoming a competent NFL offensive line. When the season began, Clabo was the only one in the group who had ever played a single NFL game - and even he had never played the tackle position.
The key here is not to panic. Web sites tend to claim the team is in dire need of a massive overhaul on the line. That assessment is a bit out of date, because the overhaul is nearly complete. Matt Lehr is already gone. Wayne Gandy is already gone. Kynan Forney is presumed to be in jeopardy heading into camp (a likely trade to a team that uses zone blocking). Todd McClure faces real competition for his job. And all those hopeless backups from 2005 and 2006 are long gone.
Yes, an upgrade or two would be nice, but at this point the Falcons could even stand pat on the line and be much improved over last year. In all seriousness, this unit really isn't bad. Petrino's offense with Gandy, Forney, McClure, and Blalock as a rookie was dreadful. But a potential lineup including Clabo, Stepanovich, Foster, Batiste, and the second-year Blalock is a completely different story - especially playing for coaches who have a clue.