It was a strategic risk to let Harvey Dahl go to St. Louis in free agency last summer. The belief was that Dahl was the most expendable between all three free agent candidates of Justin Blalock, Tyson Clabo, and Dahl. Dahl was the oldest and had the least upside of the three. The feeling was that it would be impossible to keep all 3 in one off-season (an argument that rings somewhat hollow with them keeping Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, and now Asante Samuel). The Falcons front office trusted they had enough young talent on the roster to fill the gap with an tough competition in camp.
Right guard was one of the Falcons most glaring weaknesses in 2011. An open competition between Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson yielded Reynolds as the opening day starter. The right guard position became an immediate and extremely apparent weakness from the very beginning. Reynolds, never seeming a good fit at guard, was beaten readily and handily and soon gave way to Mike Johnson for a brief stint. Johnson was thought to be the front-runner in camp until a concussion sidelined him and essentially took him out of the competition. Johnson was put on IR after an ankle injury (?) in Detroit. Sam Baker, returning from injury and losing his left tackle job outright to Will Svitek, tried his hand at guard and was also a trainwreck. Thought to be the heir at center, Joe Hawley was moved to right guard and helped stabilize the position somewhat earning 12 starts. However, even Hawley had major struggles at times.
Of all the position battles in camp, this one appears to be the most competitive and most needed for improvement if the Falcons are going to improve on their overall very poor offensive line play from a year ago. A look at the candidates and their respective chances at earning the right guard spot……
Many fans are hoping that Johnson finally lives up to the potential that he held at the University of Alabama, helping pave the way for Mark Ingram to win the Heisman Trophy and winning the National Championship with an undefeated record. Johnson was thought by many to be the lead candidate to take over for Harvey Dahl when he was allowed to walk to St. Louis in free agency. At the time he held the record for most starts by any Alabama Crimson Tide player in its insanely rich history. He played many spots in Tuscaloosa including both guard spots and both tackle spots.
An early concussion in training camp really set him back and he never seemed to be the same since. He had a brief stint playing in two games but was then put on Injured Reserve for an injured ankle. Johnson reportedly fell out of favor with former OL coach Paul Boudreau, but there never seems to be any proof of that. Hopefully, Johnson will come in with a chip on his shoulder and earn the RG spot and justify his 3rd round pick a few years ago. Chances – Decent
The debate here in The Bird Cage has raged the last few days with the idea that Peter Konz appears (perhaps a wrong impression) to be training for the right guard competition fairly exclusively. Obviously, not a whole lot can be gathered from a 3 day rookie mini-camp in shorts, but the Falcons staff have gone out of their way to say that Konz will compete for both center and guard. If Konz is the best guard candidate and he wins that competition, than so be it. But there is a feeling among Falcons fans that the staff may be unnecessarily cross-training a candidate for another position because they feel either he really has a long-term future there, will be the best combination for this unit in 2012, or don’t have that much confidence in all the other candidates competing for right guard.
The idea of cross-training is a very good one, but as in the case of Garrett Reynolds playing guard, sometimes it just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Even though Konz surely can play guard, he made his hay at Wisconsin at center, where he was unanimously considered to be the very best center in the entire draft. The idea many worry about is that cross-training can sacrifice quality. Wherever he is best, most believe he should go ahead and play that position as a rookie. Otherwise, you’re looking at once again having to train new players for two positions if he moves back to center as opposed to one (RG) or possibly none in 2013. Todd McClure is a future Ring of Honor candidate and will go down as one of the best Falcons in franchise history, but he’s 35 and his play has definitely gone down the last few years. He was signed to a one-year contract, so if the Falcons move Konz to right guard just to allow McClure to start at center, questions on “true competition” will definitely arise, not to mention having to do it all over again next year. Chances – Very High
Before the Falcons traded for Asante Samuel, the signings of Manuwai and Lofa Tatupu were the Falcons biggest moves. Manuwai’s story is well-documented in that he was a very good right guard while in Jacksonville, suffered an injury at a very inopportune time, and was subsequently hurt by the lockout. Manuwai never had a chance to heal or work with trainers, so Jacksonville simply cut ties with him instead of having to wait for his rehabilitation and take up an extra roster spot. Manuwai is the big unknown. It was a very low-risk, potentially high-reward pickup that can have very little downside. Manuwai started all but 6 games while in Jacksonville (excluding 2008 when he was lost for the year) since 2003.
Falcons fans who crave a big ol’ boy offensive line would love Manuwai to get back to his old self and allow for a potentially massive offensive line not short on beef up front. However, Manuwai will turn 32 years old in July and would be nothing more than a short-term fix even in the best case scenario. Manuwai has been completely out of football for over a full year and is still a longshot to not only start, but make the roster. If Manuwai doesn’t earn the starting job and has guys younger than him even close to him, you have to think the staff will go with the younger guy. It would be awesome to plug Manuwai and his old form into the starting lineup, but it doesn’t seem likely. Chances – Longshot
Jackson is a big unknown in this competition. He was drafted out of Fresno State last year and was a very good prospect that got an injury at a bad time and that hurt his draft stock, falling all the way to the 7th round. Jackson was one of the best offensive linemen in the WAC and was poised to contend for All-America honors as a senior before it was cut short due to injury. Jackson was considered a main reason RB Ryan Matthews had such a great year and was then drafted in the first round. Many sites considered him a potential fourth round pick before his injury as a senior.
Jackson is a very intriguing prospect. First of all, he may have at least a small leg up on the others coming from Fresno State and playing under new offensive line coach and former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill. Second, Jackson may be one of the smartest offensive linemen on the team. He earned high marks for football intelligence, but also won several honors of Academic All-American. Jackson is a gritty and tough player with a nasty streak that will surely serve him well in the competition. He didn’t make the 53 man roster, but did make the practice squad and will definitely push for at least a backup spot on the team. The former Bulldog has good height, but is well under 300 pounds and that may come into play when going against big-bodied DT’s. Adding some weight would probably serve him well. Jackson is probably a favorite to make the team, but still a longshot to earn the starting spot. Chances – Longshot
If Hawley was thought of as a major candidate to fill the right guard position, then he certainly would an inside track on the rest of the competition. The turnstile that was the right guard spot last year, Hawley finally added some stabilization to the offensive line. Garrett Reynolds started the year and was dreadful (although we should question not the player necessarily, but the brainchild to start a guy who’s exclusively played right tackle his entire career to guard). Reynolds gave way to Mike Johnson for a few snaps only to see him go on the injured reserve soon after. Then Sam Baker tried his hand at right guard after coming back from injury and outright losing his starting right tackle spot to Will Svitek. Baker also looked downright awful as well, almost single-handedly giving up a big safety on Matt Ryan in the process.
Finally, they moved Joe Hawley from his normal and natural center position to right guard. Who knows if it was a light-bulb moment or simply desperation, but it finally did stabilize an overall poor offensive line. Hawley’s size and frame seem to fit center better than right guard. Like Jackson, he’s pretty light for a guard at 6’3, 302 lbs. Hawley was drafted because of his nastiness and toughness out of UNLV and was always thought to be the heir to Todd McClure at center. He took his lumps at the beginning of the season at center in McClure’s absence, but the trial-by-fire seems to have benefited him. While not outstanding by any means, Hawley definitely did an admirable job at right guard, especially considering his last minute switch. The idea goes that Hawley will stay at center and Konz, being bigger, will compete for right guard. But if Hawley needs to play guard, he’s proven he can at least do a commendable job. Chances – High, if Needed
Been there, done that. He’s not a guard. Chances – What’s Below Zero?
The undrafted free agent from Toledo will be fighting just to make the practice squad, much less the active roster or zooming all the way from not being taken in the draft to starting in the NFL. Manley’s size (6’5, 309) isn’t something to sneeze at and may be a good candidate to groom on the practice squad, but even that will be a struggle for him to accomplish. Chances – Next to Impossible
1) Who do you WANT to win the right guard spot in training camp?
2) Who do you think WILL win the right guard spot in training camp?
3) Is this put-up or shut-up time for Mike Johnson?
4) Is moving Peter Konz to right guard the best idea?
5) Does Hawley at center and Konz at right guard give the best option?
6) Any chance Manuwai regains his old form at soon to be 32 years old?