Center is the least glamorous position on a football field. It's also one of the most important and where the Falcons made one of their mistakes, telling Todd McClure a few years ago, "You might as well retire because we're going to cut you anyway."
But the Falcons took a significant step toward making up for that mistake Wednesday. After three years of mostly misery at center, from handing the job to a touted draft pick (Peter Konz) to giving it to a vagabond free agent (Mike Person), the team isigned coveted free agent center Alex Mack, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, to a five-year, $47.5 million contract. (Official press release at bottom.)
Free agent signees don't come with guarantees. But this was about as safe of a choice as the Falcons could have made.
Offensive linemen generally don't have ego problems so the only risk is health, and Mack showed his toughness and resilience by coming back to have a Pro Bowl season in 2015 for Cleveland after suffering a broken leg in 2014. He had an opt-out clause in his contract and exercised it only two years into a five-year, $42 million deal, knowing he could cash in (most likely from the Falcons).
The only other risk the Falcons are taking with this signing is that they're going to spend so much money on one player -- albeit at their position of greatest need -- that there might not be much left for other needs (defensive end, linebacker, safety, wide receiver). Their prioritizing of Mack in free agency was likely the reason they couldn't also afford to also sign linebacker Bruce Irvin , who had expressed an interest in coming to Atlanta but instead agreed to a four-year, $37 million deal with Oakland.
Center was the Falcons' greatest need, even with their anemic pass rush. We saw last season what happens when their offense doesn't work. Much of the blame for offensive struggles was put on coordinator Kyle Shanahan and/or quarterback Matt Ryan. But abysmal center blame also was a contributing factor. The center needs to recognize blitzes, call our protections and, oh yeah, snap the ball accurately.
Person's four fumbles in 14 games tied for the NFL lead among non-skilled position offensive players.
Former Falcons receiver Roddy White, before he was released by the team, said the team's decision to force McClure into retirement was regrettable and contributed to Ryan's struggles for the following the 2012 season.
"We should’ve had Todd McClure for two more years," White said. "I believe if we had him, we could’ve gone to a Super Bowl. He literally fixed everything. Todd always made sure somebody was on a body, which alleviated pressure on Matt. He was the ultimate at that, making calls, reading blitzes and letting Matt do his thing. When Todd left, Matt couldn’t be as good at the other stuff."
Whether you agree with White or not, his comments on what McClure did illustrate the importance of a center. The Falcons had a nice stopgap in Joe Hawley in 2014 but then released him without a viable option. And then I Tweeted this:
So it was a series of bad mistakes by the Falcons. But they should be commended for this signing, even if a positive move at center was long overdue.
Official press release:
The Atlanta Falcons today announced that they have agreed to terms on a five-year deal with three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack.
“We knew we needed to add an established presence along our offensive line,” said general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “Alex is a three-time pro bowler and is an ideal scheme fit for our offense. We understand the importance of solidifying the center position and we have been able to do that today. We are pleased to be able to add Alex to our roster and believe he will be an anchor to our line.”
Mack, 6-4, 311 pounds was originally drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round (21st overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft out of California. He has started all 101 games he’s played in. During his rookie season, Mack became the fifth rookie to start all 16 games at center, and helped his team record four consecutive games with more than 160 rushing yards.
In 2010, Mack was anchored an offensive line that helped Peyton Hillis rush for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. He continued his consecutive games started and offensive snaps streak during the 2011 season starting all 16 games. Then in 2012, he was a part of an offensive line that helped Trent Richardson earn a Browns’ rookie rushing record with 950 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. During the 2013 season, Mack was one of three Browns offensive lineman who played every offensive snap.
Mack played and started in five games under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan during the 2014 season in Cleveland before going down with an injury. During those five games the offense averaged 26.8 points per game, 383.2 total yards per game, 146.4 rushing yards per game, and 4.4 yards per carry. Last season, Mack returned from injury to play in all 16 games and was selected to his third career Pro Bowl.
During his senior year at the University of California, Mack was awarded the Draddy Trophy, which is given to college football’s top scholar-athlete. He was also a two-time Rimington Trophy finalist, which is given to the nation’s top center. Mack did not allow any quarterback sacks or pressures on 397 pass plays during his senior year in 2008, and he was only penalized twice in a total of 832 snaps.
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