Bulked-up Matt Hennessy ready to battle for Falcons’ center spot

With the Falcons not re-signing the great Alex Mack, the Falcons’ center position is one of the key training-camp battles.

Matt Hennessy, who started two games at center last season after being selected in the third round of the 2020 draft out of Temple, opened training camp with the first team. He’ll have to hold off rookie center Drew Dalman, who played at Stanford and was taken in the fourth round of the 2021 draft.

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“We’re putting a lot on Matt’s plate,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Friday. “That’s a really important position for us.”

Mack, a six-time Pro Bowl player, used to call out the defensive fronts and make the blocking adjustments at the line of scrimmage. He signed with San Francisco as a free agent.

“Matt is handling what we are throwing at him, and Drew Dalman is doing a nice job,” Smith said. “Then we’ve got Josh Andrews who can go in there and pull the ball. We’ve got some versatility in there and guys that are flexible.”

Hennessy acknowledges that there’s more to center than snapping the ball and firing off the line of scrimmage.

“There is some complexity to coordinating things up front,” Hennessy said. “There are a lot of moving parts. You have to get things aligned pre-snap obviously with a running play clock.”

Hennessy, without the benefit of an offseason, opened the 2020 season rotating at left guard. He started the final two games of the season when Mack was out with a back injury. In the 15th game, he waged battle with Kansas City’s two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones.

“There’s nothing quite like experience,” Hennessy said. “Of course, you’d rather end up on the winning end of those battles and learn through them. Sometimes you lose, and you’re able to reassess things and grow from it. That’s what I tried to take from it.”

He also started the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Overall, he played 225 offensive snaps (20%) and had three holding penalties and one false start.

Hennessy tried to make the most of the offseason since he didn’t have one entering his rookie campaign because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it was tremendously helpful,” Hennessy said. “I spent some time away from everything back in the winter. Just training and lifting, working on physically developing. I got down here pretty early in the offseason, probably around April. I was able to work with our strength staff here and make physical strides.”

Hennessy wanted to get bigger, faster and stronger. He got stronger by turning fat into muscles and adding only three to five pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame.

“When it came time for those later phases in OTAs, I was able to develop mentally and psychological as far as playing goes,” Hennessy said. “Just get more comfortable playing the center position at the NFL level.”

The added bulk will help Hennessy anchor in the middle of the line. The added explosiveness should help him climb to the second level of the defense to block linebackers in the Falcons’ outside/inside zone scheme.

“We’re just two days in, but it feels pretty good,” Hennessy said.

In addition to center, the Falcons have openings at left guard and right tackle.

“We are just learning how to play with each other,” right guard Chris Lindstrom said. “Learning how to do our fits. Learning how to play within the offense. That comes with reps. The more reps we can get with each other, the better all of that continuity will be.”

If Hennessy doesn’t win the center job, he can slide over and compete at left guard.

“I got some experience at both spots,” Hennessy said. “You just learn how different positions work in the NFL and getting game action which is, there is nothing quite like experience. That was huge.”

The two starts provided Hennessy with some confidence.

“It gave me a ton of optimism about the future as far as (thinking) I can do really well with this,” Hennessy said.

He’s trying not to keep score in his competition with Dalman.

“I really don’t think much further than the next thing we’ve got, which is a 1:50 meeting where we’ll go over the film,” Hennessy said. “Really just progressing day to day and finding things to fix and block everything out.

But doe he want to start?

“Yeah, of course,” Hennessy said.

The competition will start in earnest when the Falcons put on the pads Tuesday, and the joint practices with the Dolphins in mid-August also will be key.

“That’s our charge every day, you have to make sure you are developing the right guys,” Smith said. “Having a competition in there at center and then making sure you pick the right eight guys to dress up for you on game day.”

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