Even though training camp is only a few weeks away, the dead zone is upon us in a bad way. As the summer has peaked with the celebration of July 4th / Independence Day, most everyone is taking their vacations, time off, or visiting family and friends before August (unofficial start of football) rolls backs around. The Cage, however, doesn’t take a break, so leading up to training camp, we’ll take a look at the biggest position battles ahead for our Atlanta Falcons. First up, the fight for right tackle.
The epitome of longevity and consistency, at least in terms of starts, will be suiting up for the Miami Dolphins in 2013. Tyson Clabo joined the Falcons way back in 2006, made 10 starts that year, 11 starts the next year, and started every single game as a Falcon. The former Wake Forest product started 80 straight regular season games, 85 including playoff games. In all, the former Falcons right tackle started 106 games for the Falcons over 7 years. That’s nothing to sneeze at and it’s certainly a risk to get younger and sacrifice such consistency. He even notched a Pro Bowl honor in 2010, the only Falcons OL to get one in a long, long time.
Opinions are fairly mixed about Clabo between media and fans alike. He reportedly got one of the highest run blocking grades from ProFootballFocus, but fans using their own eyeballs and real-time facts, think otherwise. While he may have been good at run blocking, most feel he was one of the weakest links in terms of pass protection. While he was extremely consistent in terms of starts, his productivity seemed to be on a roller coaster of sorts since his 2010 Pro Bowl honor. Sometimes he did well, only to be a swinging door to opponents getting after Matt Ryan. Another thing to consider was his salary. He was due to mae over $6 million dollars in 2013. Cutting Clabo after June 1st saved the Falcons $4.5 million. He was given a 5 year, $25 million contract after earning his first Pro Bowl berth, but as is common in professional sports, Clabo no longer seemed to be living up to his contract. It seemed to be a pretty shrewd move, but seeing as the Dolphins gave him a 1 year, $3.5 million deal, it renders the Falcons decision a fairly smart one. However, Spotrac.com has the Falcons incurring $3.1 million in dead money for 2014, but we’ll wait on confirmation on that next year.
The idea is a common in pro sports, having players with a ton of experience but declining skill sets or having players with little to no experience, but a lot more youth and talent. For a long time, the Falcons went with the former, keeping both Todd McClure at center and Clabo at right tackle, not to mention Justin Blalock and his supreme consistency of starts. It appears the Falcons have shifted to getting younger and, hopefully, more talented on the offensive line. As mentioned before, it’s risky, but it was time the Falcons started giving their own OL draftees a chance to play and start. One of the post draft conferences by Thomas Dimitroff said something along the lines of “it’s time to start developing our own players,” and that nowhere more true than the offensive line.
Although it’s a rhyming title, it really is a legitimate question regarding offensive lineman Mike Johnson. He was a 3rd round compensatory pick for the Falcons back in 2010 and seemed to be ready for a starting spot sooner than later based on his college resume. He was an All-America, First Team All-SEC, only lost two games in two years, blocked for a Heisman winner (Mark Ingram), won an SEC Title, a National Championship, and left Alabama as recording the highest number of starts (54) ever for any Roll Tide player in history. And that impressive resume has led to a whopping one whole start in 3 years. Fans are flummoxed that Johnson lost in his battle to take hold of a wide open starting right guard spot two years in a row (the position he played most in college). Not only that, but Johnson lost that spot to a player that had played right tackle almost exclusively in his playing career (Garrett Reynolds).
Johnson now enters his fourth year in the NFL and it seems like a now or never moment for the former Roll Tide member. Another interesting point is that Johnson is in a competition for the open right tackle spot instead of what he was known for in college. For the moment, Johnson appears to be in the lead for the spot, at least if you consider mini-camp to mean something. Perhaps Johnson has finally turned the corner and is ready for primetime. Or it could simply be a case of Smith giving the veteran the spot before training camp starts (something he’s done since being the Falcons coach). If nothing else, Johnson is an extremely versatile and valuable backup. The problem is, that you don’t draft offensive linemen in the 3rd round to be backups.
It’s a little harsh to judge a player on whether he gets a starting spot in only his second year, the higher the draft pick, the tougher the scrutiny. Such looks to be the case with Lamar Holmes with many fans. When the Falcons took the Southern Miss man last year in the 3rd round, many screamed and threw something at their TV. Why were the Falcons taking a supposed OL project in the 3rd round when A) their OL was already set, B) when they had no 1st or 4th round pick that year, and C) why take him in the 3rd round when everyone had him slotted in the 5th round or later? Knowing that Thomas Dimitroff always has his eye on the future, it started to make a lot more sense once fans settled down some.
At a minimum, the Falcons GM was hedging his bets with Holmes. Sam Baker was entering his contract year in 2012 and had been wildly inconsistent and Tyson Clabo was over the 30 year old mark and his performance was no longer matching his significant salary. If Baker turned out to have a bad year and wasn’t retained than Holmes could train for that LT spot or it gave Dimitroff more cap room flexibility if needed, which turned out to be the case. Dimitroff did the same exact thing when he took Akeem Dent (another supposed reach) in the 3rd round and wasn’t held hostage to high salary demands by Curtis Lofton.
Holmes comes in with amazing potential. He’s 6’6, 325 (down from 331 when drafted) and moves extremely well for a big man. He’s had a year of tutoring under OL coach Pat Hill and looks to be ready to take hold of the open RT spot. He would add size and, more importantly, mobility coupled with athleticism to the offensive line. He currently is behind Mike Johnson (a guard in college) on the depth chart and, just like Johnson, that could be taken in two ways. Either Smith is simply giving Johnson the initial nod due to his veteran nature, or Holmes isn’t catching on or catching up as the Falcons and fans had hoped. Johnson has more at stake than Holmes since he’s in year 4 and Holmes is only in year 2. However, many of Dimitroff’s 3rd round draft picks have moved into the starting lineup by year 2 (DeCoud, Peters, Dent).
Once considered the most hated group by fans, the offensive line finally seems to have several options available to them on the OL, all of which have been drafted by the Falcons front office. Although there can only be one winner, it’s overall a good situation for the Falcons. They have two offensive linemen that can be very versatile and valuable. Another good sign will be that the Falcons are finally developing some of their own OL draft picks. Of course it could go terribly awry as it did in 2011, but hopefully the combination of Pat Hill and Dirk Koetter being in year 2, having a more explosive running back, and more talent will equal a good move over the long term.
This seems to be a pretty moot point since Coach Smith has already indicated that the right tackle battle has come down to Johnson and Holmes, but could there be any other possibilities as training camp gets underway? After all, Garrett Reynolds was always a right tackle and Mike Johnson played most at guard at Alabama. They seem to have a good crop of talent at offensive tackle through undrafted free agents in Terren Jones, Alec Savoie, and Ryan Schraeder, but they’ll be fighting just for a roster spot and more likely a practice squad spot.
1) What’s your thoughts on release of Clabo: good move or too risky?
2) Who do you think WILL win the RT spot?
3) Which player do you WANT to win the RT spot?
4) What’s your overall thoughts on the offensive line as training camp approaches?