Without question, the biggest area of concern for the Atlanta Falcons heading into training camp and into the 2012 season is the offensive line. It’s great to talk about how many skill players you have, new coordinators, and new schemes, but as many fellow Cage members have pointed out, it means nothing if your offensive line can’t protect their quarterback and open some holes for their running backs.
Even though left tackle is getting the most attention as the Falcons draw close to the season, the center position may hold one of the biggest keys to the entire offensive line. Not only is the center the “quarterbacK” and leader of the offensive line, but in the Falcons case it could have a domino effect on the right guard spot. As fans saw last year, the importance of the center position can’t be understated. Todd McClure’s injury forced Joe Hawley in to start in his place to begin the season and his struggles were just a preview of what was to come. After the issues at center, it only got worse. Sam Baker was a mess at left tackle and right guard was a huge trainwreck pretty much all season going through Garrett Reynolds first, then Sam Baker, and finally having Joe Hawley (ironically) add at least some stability to the spot. A look at the candidates:
He’s been a stalwart for the Atlanta Falcons for 14 years and has 179 starts. The great center likely has a place in the exclusive Ring of Honor in his future. Of all the ups and downs in recent years, McClure has been a source of stability and strength to an otherwise volatile franchise. McClure was here before Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff and even here before Arthur Blank. His duty and excellence is outstanding and well-noted with all fans. However, is he still at the top of his game or has entered a rapid state of diminishing returns?
McClure’s absence in the beginning of the 2011 season was surely felt and his return added some much needed stability to the trainwreck of the line. Left tackle was a major issue and right guard was a revolving boat-sink. The 14 year Falcons vet doesn’t escape criticism either. McClure’s play has slipped lately, and even though the right guard debate can be used, it doesn’t completely absolve McClure. If he wins the starting job outright, than it’s hard to argue with, but at some point the Falcons must start thinking about the future. If McClure starts, won’t they have the exact same problem they’re having this year?
Although the pressure is mostly attributed to the left tackle spot, much of the recent pressure has come from the inside. The former LSU Tiger has surely lost some of his power-blocking ability as evidenced by all those 4th and 1’s the Falcons failed to convert. The front office weren’t in a hurry to re-sign and let him sit on the free agent market for well over two weeks. That coupled with his one-year contract doesn’t exactly evoke confidence the Falcons are counting on him too awful much. Two questions regarding McClure: 1) Is there any other player that’s looking to start at 35 years of age, or close to? and 2) Don’t the Falcons have to pass the torch at some point?
While some fans believe Hawley may still have a future at center, there are some that never want to see him start again, certainly not at center. Although that’s probably a little harsh, all that many remember was his disastrous start to his NFL career. When he was taken in the 4th round in the 2010 NFL Draft, he was always going to be somewhat of a project and wouldn’t be expected to contribute, much less start, right away. The former UNLV Rebel was believed to be McClure’s eventual heir at center. That changed at the beginning of the 2011 season when he was forced into action due to McClure’s injury. Hawley was manhandled in his first start against Chicago, which led to a loss to begin the campaign, and had his issues against Philadelphia, but wasn’t the worst of the bunch(that would be Sam Baker) and held out for a slim win. His final start at center came against Green Bay where they looked like world-beaters in the first half only to collapse in the second half. To be fair, Todd McClure started at center for some bad losses as well.
Even the biggest Hawley critics have to give some credit where it’s due. After the rotating trainwreck at right guard became painfully apparent, Hawley was called in to finally stabilize the position after shuffling through Garrett Reynolds and Sam Baker. Hawley surely wasn’t dominant, but he finally did add some stability to an otherwise terrible position. That’s saying something that a natural center was able to come in and do better than the previous two linemen. Of course that also says something about the weak OL drafting on Dimitroff’s part. All that being said, though Hawley helped preside over a 6-3 record when he was at right guard. Although many of the opponents they beat were pretty weak, they still won them nonetheless (including an overtime loss to the Saints).
Hawley is a touch taller (2 inches), but not much more in weight (6 lbs) than McClure. If Hawley wins the starting center job, it would bode well not just for present, but also the future in allowing the Falcons to have a new and younger offensive line work and grow together as a unit. There’s an outside chance Hawley could compete for the right guard position, but it would be an uphill battle with Peter Konz, Mike Johnson, and Vince Manuwai likely ahead of him.
It was hard to find many fans who argued with the selection of Wisconsin center Peter Konz with the Falcons second round draft pick this April. He was clearly the best center in the draft and was projected by most to go either late in the first round or certainly early in the second round. Dimitroff clearly was able to select best player available at a position of need (OL). It was a relief to finally see Dimitroff and Co. spend an early pick on a talented and much needed offensive lineman, clearly the biggest weakness on the 2011 Falcons squad. The Birds front office immediately made it clear that “The Konz” would be competing for both the center and guard positions. It’s hard to believe that Konz won’t start somewhere, it’s just a matter of where.
Originally, the belief was that the best idea would be to plug them in at their natural position and stop the madness of cross-training and playing players out of position. Since Konz was the best center in the draft, just put him at center and let the rest battle it out for the right guard spot. The former Badger could be the Falcons center for the next decade or more. However, the coaching staff have gone out of their way to say they will be putting the best 5 on the field, regardless of strict position. Konz’s size (6’5, 314) already boasts a better frame for guard than the other candidates. The belief is that Konz is going to add a needed injection of ability and talent whatever position he starts and it’s unimaginable him not starting somewhere.
In terms of the future, fans might like to see Hawley start at center and Konz at guard, thus creating an OL to grow together for years to come. On the other hand, having Konz start at center would open up the right guard for either former 3rd round draft pick Mike Johnson or the elder road-grading Vince Manuwai. Finally, what would seemingly be a mistake would have Konz start at right guard as a rookie only to move to center a year later, essentially having the Falcons offensive line be a constant turnstile. Konz is likely to start, but what will be the best for not only the present, but also the future remains a major question.
1) Simple Leadoff: Who do you WANT to win the center spot?
2) Simple Leadoff Pt. 2: Who do you think WILL win the center spot?
3) Does McClure have enough juice left for one more year?
4) Is it time to revamp the offensive line for the future?
5) What’s your feelings on Hawley: “still has potential” or “an eternal backup?”
6) Will Hawley benefit from his trial-by-fire time at center and his 10 NFL starts at guard?
7) Where do you think The Konz SHOULD play as a rookie?
8.) Where do you think he WILL play as a rookie?
9) Should the Falcons look only at this year or start building the OL for the future?
10) How would you feel if Konz started guard this year, only to move to center next year?