Optimism has reigned throughout Falcons fandom with the beginning of off-season, including OTA’s and mini-camp. A buzz has started to rumble with all the new additions, new schemes, new coaches, and all the players saying how good the Falcons look already and it’s only June. Roddy White has said that this is the best he’s seen the last four years. The confidence in players, coaches, and fans alike is very genuine and is getting the masses excited already. There lies one messy and bitter spoiler and everyone knows exactly what it can be: the catastrophic potential at left tackle.
Despite all the optimism and confidence it all begins, ends, and rests with the left tackles ability to protect Matt Ryan. Many believe that left tackle is the second most important position on a football team behind the QB and it’s hard to argue with so many teams drafting franchise left tackles in the top 5 of almost every recent draft. Teams will also pull out all the stops to acquire a left tackle if they need one, paying them whatever they want in free agency or even giving up first round picks. Thomas Dimitroff thought he may have had his own after trading up to get Sam Baker, but that’s looking less and less true every game that’s played and every season that goes by. Dimitroff, Smith, and Co. evidently feel comfortable at what they have at left tackle, but fans surely don’t share that hope and belief. A look at the prospects (or lack thereof):
There’s been no more Falcon that has been more criticized and harangued by fans and media alike than one Mr. Baker. Many call him an outright bust, but that’s not entirely fair. He was a part of two offensive lines (2009 and 2010) where he never missed a start and, in particular in 2010 when he played left tackle on a team that went 13-3 and snagged the #1 seed in the NFC. That offensive line helped send 5 offensive skill players (White, Ryan, Gonzalez, Turner, & Mughelli) to the Pro Bowl. To say he’s an outright 1st round bust is a little harsh.
However, Baker has proven to be anything but a franchise left tackle for the Falcons. Both his rookie year and especially last year was marred by injuries, inconsistency, but above all poor play. Injuries are surely a part of the game and many times they can’t be helped, but if Baker was that injured last year, he should have just been shelved for the year on injured reserve.
Baker came back and looked downright awful, being so bad that he gave way to backup Will Svitek. They even tried the former USC Trojan at right guard and he looked even worse at that spot. Injuries can only be used for so long and for blame for so long. Baker has been a walking infirmary with at least 5-6 different types of injuries or issues.
It appears that Mike Smith and Dimitroff are committed to giving Baker one last chance to get back some of the form of he exhibited in 2009 and 2010, but you have to think that this is it. Some fans already feel that Baker will “win” the job and that it won’t even be a truly fair competition. Smith has promised an open competition all along the offensive line, but there’s a feeling that it will just be the same old, same old and that Smith will pick who he wants instead of who’s necessarily best (same goes for Todd McClure at center). You would have to think that if Baker somehow doesn’t win the battle for left tackle than he and his nearly $3 million dollar cap hit would be cut loose. Entirely too much for a backup OL. Chances of Winning LT Job – 50%
The former Kansas City Chief has been a solid backup since joining the Falcons a few years to go. Svitek became more than a backup last year when he took over for Baker after an injury and held off Baker for the job when he returned (not a difficult task). The Czech Republic native actually played defensive end and tight end while at Stanford before making the conversion to offensive tackle. Svitek’s been a formidable backup and was pretty solid for the most part last year.
Although Svitek is a good backup, he’s surely not a franchise left tackle. He turned 30 in January and there’s a reason you have starters and backups. He’s a very good backup and can deal with the mediocre and poor defensive ends, but when he runs up against the elite pass-rushers, he struggles. The former Stanford Cardinal actually is somewhat of a forgotten man when most media discuss the left tackle spot. They talk about Baker almost exclusively as the weak position on the Falcons roster.
Even though most think that Smith’s favoritism towards Baker will yield him the winner, Svitek very well could be the stop-gap the Falcons need to see what they have in 3rd round draft pick Lamar Holmes. The good news for Svitek, unlike Baker, is that if he doesn’t win the starting job, he has a much better chance of making the roster as a backup. Chances of Winning Spot – 40%
After the initial shock of hearing Holmes name called as the Falcons 3rd round draft pick, many fans have come around to at least tolerating the pick. Some still believe it was an enormous reach and he could have been had around the 5th round or later. Holmes surely has all the measurables to be a franchise left tackle (6’6, 323, huge hands and wingspan) and it’s hard to criticize Dimitroff for infusing the offensive line with talent after fans have been clamoring for it for years. Holmes is admittedly a project, but he definitely has the right attitude.
He has talked a lot about coming in and “taking someone’s job and spot” and that he’s not going in to make friends.” He said he took the same approach when he went from a junior college to Southern Mississippi and eventually to captain of the team as a senior. The Falcons scouts also reportedly were happy with Holmes excellent work ethic and progress from his junior to senior year. It’s probably not unheard of a 3rd round draft pick coming in and starting left tackle right off the bat, but not for a team hoping to achieve their ultimate goals in that very season.
A 3rd round pick starting at guard, right tackle, or even center is much more realistic, but left tackle is hard to imagine. Throw in the fact that Holmes is suffering from a foot injury and has yet to participate in OTA’s or mini-camp and you get the feeling that any tiny possibility of him grabbing the starting spot went out the window. Holmes definitely projects to left tackle, but looking at 2013 or later seems to make more sense. Hopefully, he’ll get some reps this year, but in terms of starting, it’s next to impossible. The problem many fans have is that there’s a chance that there will be two 3rd round OL draft picks (including Mike Johnson) not in the starting rotation. Chance of Starting – 5%
Thomas Dimitroff has gone out of his way to say that he is completely happy with the Falcons roster and that fans shouldn’t expect any other names to be added. It appears they are content with Baker and Svitek battling it out at left tackle for 2012. To be honest, that statement will likely hold true. However, Marcus McNeil’s name is still a free agent and his name keeps popping up from various media members thinking that the Falcons will bring in a proven, but injured player to add competition if nothing else. There’s always a chance that some names will be available when cuts come down, but teams just don’t let go of franchise tackles. Theoretically, it could happen, but with Dimitroff passing on a ton of tackles with potential during free agency (Anthony Collins, Demetrius Bell, etc), it’s very unlikely that he’ll do it during camp. Chance of a Free Agent Starting – 5%
Even though former OL coach Paul Boudreau had a ton of success early on, he didn’t do an adequate job of developing talent and wasn’t able to plan well or adjust quick enough for the trainwreck that became the 2011 Falcons offensive line. Some feel that he was given the hook to quick or even scape-goated, but the simple fact remains that the offensive line was really bad last season and almost got the QB killed. As mentioned in previous posts, Boudreau never stayed with an NFL team more than 3 years. It’s certainly a leap to think that was the reason he was let go from all the other teams, but a lack of adjustment surely cost him job in Atlanta.
Enter Pat Hill, former head coach of Fresno State who almost single-handedly brought that program to relevancy. He does have NFL experience and is reportedly highly respected in coaching circles. No one knows exactly what differences in approach or schemes he will bring, but the expectations are high for him and the new OL. The idea among many is that Hill will be more diverse and responsive in his gameplans, schemes, and blocking techniques. The feeling from Boudreau and Mularkey was they were extremely rigid in their approach. Hopefully, Hill can change that.
Finally, the hope is that Hill can do much more with some of the players that have been drafted in the Dimitroff regime, specifically Mike Johnson, Garrett Reynolds, and Joe Hawley. Also, with the open competition at many OL positions, the expectation is that Hill will add some impartial objectivity to those in the competition, not showing favoritism to veteran or higher drafted players.
1) Simple: Is it time to panic at left tackle?
2) Your prediction on who will win the starting LT job?
3) Will someone take over the job at any point during season?
4) Can Sam Baker really turn it around?
5) What’s Smith and TD’s obsession with Baker?
6) Any chance Svitek is being overlooked?
7) Will the loser of the battle for LT be cut?
8.) Any way Holmes takes the spot?
9) If and when will Holmes take over at LT?
10) Any chance TD signs a free agent LT, like McNeill?
11) Is Pat Hill the savior for a broken and weak OL?