We’ll never know for sure, but if the Falcons had held the 13th choice in Round 1, there’s a very good chance they’d have introduced Christian Wilkins to the media assembled in Hall County on Friday. But they didn’t have the 13th pick. They had the 14th, which fell one spot after Miami snagged the Clemson defensive tackle.
For all the blather about Draft Planning, the reality is that a team must hatch several plans. Which isn’t to say that what the Falcons wound up doing – drafting not one but two offensive linemen in Round 1 – constitutes a half-hearted Plan B. According to Dan Quinn, the coach/football czar, the O-line had been an area of concern for a while, but “it (meaning previous drafts) hadn’t fallen that way.” This one did.
Said Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager: “This wasn’t just about who’s starting (along the offensive line); this was about the next wave.”
Here Dimitroff gave a thin smile. “It’s a learned experience.”
In the Super Bowl season of 2016, the Falcons had one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, which was a key reason they had the NFL’s absolute best offense and Matt Ryan had his year of years. Then Chris Chester, the right guard, retired. Then right tackle Ryan Schraeder, the team’s best O-lineman before center Alex Mack arrived as a free agent, began to slip. Andy Levitre, the left guard, got hurt last September. Right guard Brandon Fusco was lost in October. The inevitable result was a line that couldn’t block for the run or keep Ryan from being hit, meaning Katy bar the door.
“Our offensive line was in a really good spot,” Dimitroff said, thinking back to 2016. “We had a lot of experience. But you saw what happened, and when you lose two starters (to injury) … well, it’s not always easy.”
The Falcons won’t say they expect Chris Lindstrom, the guard from Boston College, and Kaleb McGary, the tackle from Washington, to start immediately. “We expect them to compete their asses off,” Dimitroff said. “As for the five best, it’s like Dan says: ‘Time will tell.’”
But let’s be honest: A team doesn’t spend a Round 1 pick, let alone two Round 1 picks, with the expectation of the new guys topping out as quality backups. The Falcons really like Lindstrom and McGary. If they didn’t, the two wouldn’t have been posing for photos at the team’s fieldhouse Friday.
The change in offensive coordinators doesn’t mean the Falcons have scrapped their outside-zone run scheme. The chief reason Quinn tapped Dirk Koetter as his OC – Koetter previously was Mike Smith’s OC, too – was his commitment to a blend of passing and running. “We want to run with more oomph,” Quinn said, “and with more balance.”
The layman’s impression of outside-zone blocking generally is one of smallish linemen working on the edge. Lindstrom is 6-foot-4, 310 pounds; McGary is 6-7, 317. Said Quinn: “When you think of size, you think of guys who can’t move as well. We wanted more size, but we weren’t going to back off on the movement. Not all 300-pounders are the same.”
Then: “Sometimes you get a vision of how a guy fits your system and style of play. I had that with Keanu (Neal, the strong safety), with Deion (Jones, the linebacker) and Hoop (tight end Austin Hooper). When you get a vision like that, those are the easiest guys to pick.”
Then, speaking of the players picked 13th and 14th in this draft: “Chris (meaning Christian Wilkins) and Chris (meaning Lindstrom) are an awful lot alike – they’re guys who will battle you.”
We know by now that the Falcons pick nobody who’s not a “DQ guy.” Asked Friday if he knew what it meant to be such a guy, Lindstrom cited chapter and verse: “It’s someone who’s tough and hard-nosed and accountable, someone who’s accountable to his teammates.”
Yep. That’s it. A few moments later, McGary offered his version: “Tough guys who always show up for work and who never stay down.” And that’s it, too.
Words never spoken by a fan of any team: “I’m really pumped because we spent two first-round picks on 300-pound blockers.” Remember the traffic jam on Spout Springs Road the Saturday after the Falcons traded up to grab Michael Vick? Remember the horde of reporters that descended on Hartsfield-Jackson to watch Deion Sanders deplane after he was tapped by the Falcons in 1989? This draft was not those drafts, and it wasn’t intended to be.
This was never about sizzle. (Wilkins is a fine player and a delightful guy, but he’s still a defensive tackle.) This was about adding substance to a team that has all the skill players it needs. The Falcons were determined to bolster one line or the other. As it happened, they wound up doubling down on the O-line.
Drafting an offensive lineman is akin to pulling into Wendy’s and opting for a salad over the Baconator, but sometimes you’ve got to do what’s good for you. In this Round 1, the Falcons did something that should, over the long haul, be good for them. You’ll hear no gripes from this correspondent.
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