Some major decisions have been building for several years regarding the offensive line and what the future will look like for one of the most important aspects of any successful team. The story is well-documented for Bird fans since Head Coach Mike Smith and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff came together to start the new, and most successful, regime in Atlanta Falcons history. One of Smith’s main hires was famed offensive line coach Paul Boudreau who would have his work cut out for him with not much in the way of talent and many veterans on the verge of retirement. The 2007 offensive line was made up of several older veterans picked high in the draft but claimed through free agency (Wayne Gandy – 36 – 1st round; Todd Weiner – 32 – 2nd round ), one recent and high draft pick (Justin Blalock – 2nd round), many late round draftees (Quinn Ojinnaka – 5th; Todd McClure – 7th, Kynan Forney – 7th), and one undrafted free agent (Tyson Clabo). The task was obviously a steep one.
Thomas Dimitroff traded draft picks to climb up and grab Sam Baker in the first round to protect his newly drafted franchise quarterback. They claimed Harvey Dahl off a practice squad who was also an undrafted free agent and moved their other undrafted free agent to Tyson Clabo to right tackle. Many were skeptical of an offensive line devoid of such talent. Boudreau and Smith worked their magic to turn the OL into a highly overachieving line that led the Falcons to an 11-5 record, leading the NFL in rushing, pushing Michael Turner to the Pro Bowl, protecting Matt Ryan to become Rookie of the Year, and a trip to the playoffs. Dimitroff and Co. felt it was important to keep the offensive line together and knew he had the upper hand with Blalock, Baker, and McClure being under contract, as well as knowing that both Clabo and Dahl would be restricted free agents. The offensive line has pretty much stayed the exact same. Since taking Baker in 2008, Dimitroff has drafted tackle Garrett Reynolds in the 5th round, guard Mike Johnson in the 3rd, Joe Hawley in the 4th, and claimed tackle Will Svitek in free agency. With three of the starting offensive lineman set to become unrestricted free agents (Clabo, Dahl, Blalock) and another moving up in age (McClure), it’s not a matter of “if” the OL changes, but rather “how much.” Here’s a rundown of the characters at play………..
Tyson Clabo – 6’6 – 331 – Age: 29 – Games Started as a Falcon: 69
The most well-known of the OL and surely to be one of the biggest names to hit the free agent market, assuming that Dimitroff doesn’t attempt to re-sign him before then. He is the biggest of all the OL and has absolutely been the model of consistency for the Falcons, starting 69 games since 2006 and not missing one game due to injury. For those that crave a big and nasty offensive line, Clabo is right up their alley and is a giant among most men. He has proven that he can play extremely well against down lineman and blitzing 3-4 linebackers alike. The giant RT could be considered the Falcons best offensive lineman since he was just named to his first Pro Bowl in 2011. Why in the world would TD allow Clabo to walk? The obvious reason is that Clabo has made no secret about his desire to test the free agent market. Last year he was on record as definitely being upset about the change from players becoming free agents after 6 years instead of 4. A shock may be in order, but it’s almost a certainty that of all three free agent OL, Clabo is the most likely to be long gone. With all the holes and free agents due up and Garrett Reynolds waiting in the wings, it’s doubtful Dimitroff will get into a bidding war over Clabo.
Harvey Dahl – 6’5 – 305 – Age: 29 – Games Started as a Falcon: 43
One of the “nastiest players in the NFL,” one Mr. Dahl has made a fantastic name for himself along side the Bad Boy side of the line with Tyson Clabo. You won’t find a tougher and more old-school football player than Harvey Dahl. Even though he’s definitely curbed his aggressive streak after the whistle, Dahl has made the Atlanta Falcons recognizable as a lunch pail crowd who may not have the most talent, but will outwork and out hit their opponents. That attitude has helped pave the way for the Falcons posting back-to-back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. Dahl might be the biggest question mark when it comes to re-signing the any of the free agent OL. It’s highly unlikely that Dimitroff will re-sign all three players with all the other free agents on the roster and some moves he may make in the overall market. The Falcons could decide to keep Dahl and let Tyson Clabo walk, but would they be willing to part with Justin Blalock since they drafted him (under McKay), he seems to have more upside, is younger, and could move back to his natural position of right guard? Will they want to re-sign both Blalock and Dahl with Mike Johnson, who they drafted in the 3rd round, and upstart Jose Valdez waiting in the wings?
Justin Blalock – 6’4 – 329 – Age: 27 – Games Started as a Falcon: 62
Along with Clabo and McClure, Blalock has also been a model of consistency since he was drafted by Bobby Petrino and Rich McKay in 2007. After some early struggles, Blalock seems to have improved a good bit on the left side with Sam Baker. With Baker’s health issues and inconsistency, Blalock has seemingly gotten better and has started on the offensive line since he was drafted except for two games. The big OL from Texas has played his entire career at left guard for the Falcons, even though his natural position was right guard in college. Out of the three free agents, Blalock looks to be the most likely to be re-signed due to his youth, upside, and the fact that he was drafted by the Falcons. Blalock appears to give the most versatility of all three as well. He could obviously stay at left guard if they decide to keep Harvey Dahl, or he could move back to his natural position of right guard if they feel that either Mike Johnson or Jose Valdez is ready to take over on the left side. Out of Clabo, Dahl, and Blalock, the 2007 draftee from Texas seems the most likely to be in the Falcons future somewhere on the OL.
Todd McClure – 6’1 – 296 – Age: 33 – Games Started as a Falcon: 166
Not too much to say here. He’s the ultimate team guy and consummate Atlanta Falcon. He’s the captain of the offensive line and is the most veteran Falcon on the entire team. Even though many will think of the Saints fumble late in the season or the mishandle against the Packers (although the game was basically out of reach anyway), McClure is a great captain, has developed great chemistry with Matt Ryan, and won’t ever get outworked. The only issue is when he will hang up his cleats. There were rumblings that McClure might be close to retirement a few years ago, but he seems committed to keep going. He has said how much he he’s enjoyed the consistency with his OL teammates, so could the change coming prompt him to rethink his future?
Garrett Reynolds – 6’7 – 317 – Age: 23
The behemoth right tackle was drafted in 2009 from North Carolina in the fifth round and was expected not just to be a backup, but was projected to be a potential starter one day. He played in 4 games as a rookie in limited roles and never started. For those that have ever been to Training Camp in Flowery Branch, it’s impossible not to notice the Giant Garrett Reynolds. He’s hand downs the biggest man on campus and seems to be improving, but the big question remains whether the Falcons top brass feels confident enough in Reynolds to let Tyson Clabo walk into free agency after making his first Pro Bowl and starting 69 games in 5 years. Reynolds probably wouldn’t have much of a drop in pass blocking, but questions would be prevalent about his run blocking skills. Even though he did cross-train at guard after becoming a Falcon, his versatility appears limited to right tackle.
Mike Johnson – 6’5 – 312 – Age: 23
Johnson was one of the most decorated linemen to come out of last year’s draft. He was first team All-American and first team All-SEC. Perhaps the biggest recognition to be heaped on Johnson is the fact that he leaves the storied program of Alabama as playing in more games (54) than any other player in Crimson Tide history. Besides Sam Baker, Johnson is the highest drafted offensive lineman in the Smith/Dimitroff era. With so many free agents coming up, it was almost a certainty that Johnson would be starting on the OL sooner rather than later. The question wasn’t if but where Johnson would be, at right guard or left guard. Although highly rated when coming out, reports had the former Crimson Tide struggling at the onset of preseason camp. The most likely scenario would think to have Blalock move back to his natural position of right guard and allow Johnson to move in at left guard. Will that be too much of a risk having him next to inconsistent Sam Baker? Or will Dimitroff elect to re-sign both Dahl and Blalock, which would basically relegate Johnson to backup duty? We’ll know very soon.
Joe Hawley – 6’3 – 297 – Age: 22
Hawley was somewhat of a surprise when Dimitroff nabbed him in the fourth round. He may not have been the highest rated center prospect, but he seemed to fit what Coach Smith and Coach Boudreau like in an offensive lineman. He possesses the physical tools and nasty streak they are looking for in a center. Although he could play guard, he appears ready to take over for Todd McClure whenever he decides to retire. Appeared in 15 games this year, most likely on special teams.
Jose Valdez – 6’6 – 324 – Age: 24
A practice squad hero during the 2010 preseason. Some even thought that Valdez might sneak his way onto the 53 man roster after he played both guard and tackle overall well. His play and quick feet garnered him some attention with fans and raised the possibility he may be in the Falcons future plans if he weren’t snagged off their practice squad. He may not make it all the way up to starter status, but this might be his best shot to crack the OL rotation.
Sam Baker – 6’5 – 307 – Age: 25 – Games Started as a Falcon: 35
The story’s well-documented here as well. Baker has been a lightning rod for debate since Dimitroff traded up to grab Baker in the first round to protect his franchise quarterback’s blind side. He has been inconsistent at best since he took over LT as a rookie. He only started 5 games as a rookie and many feared he would be an injury-prone draft bust. He came back in 2009 and only missed 2 games and started all 16 games this year. He seemed to improve some, but then there were games where he struggled mightily. Baker will obviously be a part of the offensive line, but the question is whether he will remain at left tackle. Could he be moved to right tackle and the Falcons elect to go with another tackle in the first round? Could he even be moved to guard, where his supposedly short arms wouldn’t be as much of a liability? With the Tackle class coming out and so many other areas up for change, it’s likely that Smith and Dimitroff will elect to keep Baker at LT, but you never know. The main question is whether Baker has hit his ceiling and should be moved.
Will Svitek – 6’6 – 309 – Age: 29 – Games Started as a Falcon: 2
When Will Svitek was signed by Thomas Dimitroff in 2009, many thought it looked very similar to what they did with Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl. All were either not drafted or cut by other teams and OL Coach Paul Boudreau worked his magic by turning Dahl and Clabo into everyday starters and even helped Clabo to the Pro Bowl. Svitek has only started 2 games in his two years as a Falcon, but has played in all but three. There were even some reports that had him possibly beating out Sam Baker early in the 2010 campaign. Contract info is a bit hard to find, but Svitek may be a free agent himself. Could he make a play to start somewhere or is he just a serviceable backup?
The offensive tackle class coming out doesn’t appear to be the strongest in recent memory, but Dimitroff and Co. could elect to draft someone with the hope of them taking over at left tackle eventually. Due to the Falcons drafting 27th, its somewhat doubtful that a franchise left tackle could be snagged that late, at least immediately. By comparison, one of the higher rated tackles coming out last year, Bryan Bulaga, slid all the way to 23rd and was moved to right tackle. Ranked in order courtesy of DraftCountdown.com:
Nate Solder – 6’9 – 315 – Colorado
Anthony Castonozo – 6-7 – 295 – Boston College
Derek Sherrod – 6’6 – 305 – Mississippi State
Gabe Carimi – 6’7 – 327 – Wisconsin
So many scenarios and possibilities at play here. There’s a distinct likelihood that at least all three offensive lineman free agents won’t be re-signed and even a possibility that 2 of the 3 may not be re-signed. Do the Falcons go the safe route and keep their known commodities even though the current OL may have peaked, or do they infuse youth and talent with the risk that comes with younger players? Dimitroff stated that he has a “good idea of what their offensive line will look like in 2011.” Too bad he’s the only one that knows.
-What will the Falcons offensive line look like in 2011?
-Who should the Birds keep and who should they let go?
-Where are the strengths and the weaknesses on the current OL?
-Should they re-sign Clabo? Dahl? Blalock?
-Can they keep all three FA OL?
-What’s your thoughts on Reynolds, Johnson, and Hawley?
-Can Jose Valdez make the team or crack the starting lineup?
-What to do with one Mr. Baker: LT, RT, or G?
-Should the Falcons go OT in the first round?
-List your wishful starting offensive line in 2011?
-What will the OL actually be in 2011?