Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: The offensive line

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Falcons guard Chris Lindstrom calls wide receiver Julio Jones a great teammate and says he's willing to change spots to help team offense.

Editor’s note: This is the third of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before they report for training camp Tuesday.

After not protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and not running the ball effectively, the spotlight will be on the Falcons’ offensive line when training camp starts Tuesday.

The offensive line remains a concern — it will feature at least two new starters — but (coach Arthur) Smith is an upgrade over (former offensive coordinator) Dirk Koetter as the play-caller,” wrote Thomas Bassinger in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2021. “His offense very much resembles (former offensive coordinator Kyle) Shanahan’s, which helped elevate Ryan to league MVP in 2016.”

Smith plans to help the offensive line by running the ball more often with inside zone and outside zone runs.

“He’s going to run the ball,” Bassinger wrote. “A lot. Early in the game. Late in the game. On first down. On second-and-long. When the Falcons are ahead. When they’re behind. More handoffs, fewer dropbacks — that’s one way to keep Ryan upright.”

Behind last season’s shaky unit, Ryan was sacked more than 40 times (41) for the third consecutive season. He also was hit 71 times and hurried on 55 passes. The rushing attack averaged a sub-standard 3.7 yards per carry and ranked 27th in the NFL.

Smith hired former NFL player Dwayne Ledford to coach the offensive line. He’s had exceptional lines at North Carolina State and Louisville.

Ledford has vowed to play the five best players and has openings at center and left guard. He also needs to stabilize the right tackle position. Left tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom are the stable starters on the line.

“In the first meeting I was able to have with my guys in that room with the offensive line, we talked about the run game, and we talked about protecting the quarterback,” Ledford said. “We talked about protecting the quarterback has to be something that is (about) pride.”

Blocking in the run game, requires the proper attitude.

“For us … it’s going to be (about) speed off the ball, toughness, and it’s going to be about our finish,” Ledford said.

The Falcons, under Smith, also will use different formations and motions to help out the offensive line. Expect the Falcons to join the rest of the NFL by using a lot of play-action fakes coupled with much more pre-snap motion.

Under Smith, the Titans last season ranked third in play-action rate (35.9%) and fourth in motion rate (57%), according to Football Outsiders. The Falcons were about league average in both.

“I think one of the biggest things is tying everything together,” Matthews said. “The way the keepers, the play (action) pass, the running the ball, the protections ... everything, there is a purpose behind it. You throw it all together, and it keeps the defense on its heels. They are not exactly sure what’s coming.”

The Falcons have tried to improve the line via the draft. Over the past three drafts, they’ve selected five offensive linemen in the first four rounds of the draft, a total matched by only the Vikings and Dolphins.

The group consists of guard Lindstrom (first round, 2019), tackle Kaleb McGary (first round, 2019), center Matt Hennessy (third round, 2020), tackle/guard Jalen Mayfield (third round, 2021) and center Drew Dalman (fourth round, 2021).

After missing most of his rookie season with a broken foot, Lindstrom started all 16 games and played 1,123 offensive snaps (100%). He was named to Pro Football Journal’s All-Pro first team.

The Pro Football Journal is widely respected and describes itself as “dedicated to reporting mainstream and esoteric aspects of professional football.” The blog is written John Turney, a pro football researcher and writer.

Here’s what he had to say about Lindstrom:

Chris Lindstrom of Atlanta is the right guard and ... (he) did get beat once by Chris Jones (in Week 16) but then Jones could get nothing else on him so the Chiefs sent the shifts away from Lindstrom so Jones would be away from Lindstrom.”

Mayfield, who played mostly right tackle at Michigan, will battle veteran Josh Andrews for the left guard spot.

At center, Hennessy and Dalman will battle. Hennessy struggled in pass protection as a rookie. Dalman excelled at pass protection and run blocking at Stanford.

Dalman had the third-best overall blown-block rate among drafted centers, according to Football Outsiders.

McGary cut his sacks allowed from 13.5 to 1.5 last season, but he still struggled overall. He had a 58.2 (F) grade overall, according to Pro Football Focus.

McGary also must cut down on missing his blocks. His blown-block rate was fourth highest among right tackles, according to Football Outsiders.

The wild card is swing tackle Matt Gono, who played some left guard against the Chiefs last season.

“Atlanta placed a second-round tender on Matt Gono, but the swing tackle could miss significant time as he recovers from surgery on an undisclosed injury,” Bassinger wrote.

If Mayfield cannot make the transition to left guard, then he could be in the mix at right tackle. If he loses that battle, he could land the backup swing tackle spot.

“When we are looking at these prospects, we want them to show us that they are playing with a certain demeanor about them,” Ledford said. “A certain style of play. We want to see guys coming off the football. You know, playing fast.”

Mayfield passed the test.

“He’s somebody that’s giving everything that he’s got on the field,” Ledford said.

Smith was with the Titans when they drafted Nate Davis (6-3, 316) in the third round (82nd overall) out of Charlotte in 2019. He started 12 of 13 games as a rookie. Mayfield (6-5, 320) was taken 68th overall.

“Jaylen, when you watched his film, that’s something that stuck out with me was his play style,” Ledford said. “You saw that he liked to mix it up.”

Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:

Part 1: Quarterbacks

Part 2: Running Backs

Part 3: Offensive line

Part 4: Special Teams

Part 5: Wide receivers/Tight ends

Part 6: Defensive line

Part 7: Linebackers

Part 8: Secondary

091320 Atlanta: Atlanta Falcons  lineman Matt Hennessy (left) and Chris Lindstrom (right) give Todd Gurley some running room in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
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091320 Atlanta: Atlanta Falcons lineman Matt Hennessy (left) and Chris Lindstrom (right) give Todd Gurley some running room in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:

OFFENSE

WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Tajae Sharpe, 88 Frank Darby, 13 Christian Blake, 86 Antonio Nunn

WR 14 Russell Gage, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 12 Chris Rowland, 82 Austin Trammell, Jeff Badet

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 William Sweet, 72 Willie Beavers

LG 68 Josh Andrews, 77 Jalen Mayfield, 66 Willie Wright, 62 Bryce Hargrove

C 61 Matt Hennessy, 67 Drew Dalman, 65 Joe Sculthorpe

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 64 Ryan Neuzil, 75 Kion Smith, 71 Sam Jones

RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 73 Matt Gono, 77 Jalen Mayfield

TE 8 Kyle Pitts, 81 Hayden Hurst, 85 Lee Smith, 87 Jaeden Graham, 46 Parker Hesse, 80 Ryan Becker, 89 John Raine

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 5 AJ McCarron, 15 Feleipe Franks

HB 28 Mike Davis, 30 Qadree Ollison, 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 36 Tony Brooks-James, 25 Javian Hawkins, 42 Caleb Huntley

FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DL 90 Marlon Davidson, 55 Steven Means, 95 Ta’Quon Graham, 79 Chris Slayton

DL 97 Grady Jarrett, 93 Zac Dawe, 94 Deadrin Senat, John Atkins

DL 96 Tyeler Davison, 50 John Cominsky, 99 Jonathan Bullard, 69 Olive Sagapolu

OLB 56 Dante Fowler, 92 Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Shareef Miller

ILB 45 Deion Jones, 51 Brandon Copeland, 53 Erroll Thompson

ILB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 43 Mykal Walker, 48 Dorian Etheridge

OLB 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 49 Kobe Jones, George Obinna

RCB 22 Fabian Moreau, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 29 Chris Williamson

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Tyler Hall, 34 Darren Hall, 38 Marcus Murphy, 41 J.R. Pace

NCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 25 Delrick Abrams, 35 Avery Williams

FS 23 Erik Harris, 27 Richie Grant, 37 Dwayne Johnson

SS 21 Duron Harmon, 32 Jaylinn Hawkins, 39 T.J. Green, 38 Marcus Murphy

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo

P 4 Sterling Hofrichter, 9 Dom Maggio

LS 47 Josh Harris

KO 7 Younghoe Koo

KR 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 12 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams

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