A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.
The Atlanta Falcons used third- and fourth-round selections on offensive linemen in this past draft, but it looks like they will enter the 2010 season with the same starting line from a year ago. That sort of continuity up front often pays dividends, but this group took a step backward last season after a very strong 2008 campaign. This held true for pretty much the whole Atlanta offense, though the Falcons did battle a lot of injuries last season on this side of the ball, especially at the skill positions.
The Atlanta offense could be poised for a rebound season in 2010, but the line has to do its part. One year ago, I thought the Falcons’ offense could be as good as any in the league. While my opinion as a whole isn’t quite as strong now, this group does have the ability to be dominant and score a ton of points.
When you look at the Falcons’ offensive front from left to right, there really isn’t anyone who stands out as an elite player at his position. Still, this group is well-coached, tough and nasty and really holds its own both as run blockers and in protection of quarterback Matt Ryan. Atlanta allowed only nine sacks in its first seven games last year.
Ryan gets the ball out of his hands quickly and has a very good understanding of timing with an excellent internal clock -- especially for such a young quarterback. Obviously this helps the line’s protection quite a bit. But collectively, they are no slouches in protection either. Left tackle Sam Baker is quite possibly the weakest link in this area. Baker has been injured a lot in his short career and plays a very difficult position, but he has to step up in 2010. He is a good technician in protection, but doesn’t have elite agility or body length. He also could stand to add more power in the run game.
At the other tackle spot, Tyson Clabo has a reputation as a mauling run blocker, but his protection was much stronger than his ability to pave the way in the run game in 2009. Although not spectacular, he is a very solid all-around right tackle.
In the run game, left guard Justin Blalock was the greatest liability, but like Baker in protection, he does have impressive physical attributes and could quickly improve. Plus, like Baker, he is young. But Blalock needs to play up to this potential or he could be watching from the sideline.
No one ever mentions Todd McClure among the better centers in this league, but he is a very solid all-around player. He isn’t always pretty, but he gets the job done. McClure deserves much more credit than he receives.
Atlanta is also set in terms of offensive line depth after drafting Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley to improve its interior depth and potentially provide dividends as starters down the line. Blalock should worry that his play won’t be tolerated much longer. Meanwhile, Quinn Ojinnaka and Will Svitek are pretty solid backups on the edges. Ojinnaka is also able to play guard without being a liability on a week-to-week basis. Garrett Reynolds, a 2008 fifth-rounder, could also show improvement as a depth player. Those depth linemen don’t sound stellar, but when compared to what most of the other teams have, it is extremely strong.
Overall, this is a good -- and vastly underrated -- unit. Expect the Falcons’ offensive line to play more like it did in 2008 than it did a year ago.