Falcons will hope new coach turns offensive line around

Falcons offensive lineman Kaleb McGary (from left),  Chris Lindstrom, Alex Mack, James Carpenter, and Jake Matthews block for Matt Ryan against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons offensive lineman Kaleb McGary (from left), Chris Lindstrom, Alex Mack, James Carpenter, and Jake Matthews block for Matt Ryan against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series looking at Falcons position groups going into the offseason.

Of all the position groups, the Falcons’ offensive line stands to benefit the most with head coach Arthur Smith’s hiring.

Smith was a standout offensive lineman in high school at Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Md., before accepting a scholarship to play the position at North Carolina. Although his coaching career began as a defensive assistant, he became an offensive line assistant in 2013 with the Tennessee Titans.

When he took over as the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2019, the line turned into a powerful unit that helped pave the way for running back Derrick Henry to run for 3,567 yards and 33 touchdowns over two seasons.

The Falcons will certainly look for Smith to turn around an offensive line that has allowed 131 sacks over the past three years. With that in mind, here’s an early look at where things stand with the offensive line entering the offseason.

Contracts expiring: Of the five starters from the 2020 season, only center Alex Mack’s five-year contract is up. Mack will soon decide whether he wants to keep playing or if it’s time to retire after 12 seasons. The other two offensive linemen with expiring contracts are Justin McCray, who filled in as a backup center and guard during the year, and John Wetzel, a veteran reserve tackle who occasionally saw time in jumbo sets.

The new staff will need to decide whether to tender Matt Gono, the team’s sixth offensive lineman in 2020 who is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason.

Still under contract: Left tackle Jake Matthews, who turns 29 in February, is under contract through the 2024 season, providing stability at the position for the long term. Right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary will enter their third seasons and should benefit by having a former offensive lineman leading the team.

Although left guard James Carpenter has two years remaining on his deal, the Falcons could save over $4 million with his release. Assuming the Falcons are unable to bring back Mack, Matt Hennessy, who will enter the second season of his rookie contract, appears poised to be the team’s starting center moving forward.

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@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

2020 performance: Considering the Falcons brought back all five of their starting offensive linemen from the 2019 season, an improved season up front was expected. In the end, quarterback Matt Ryan still took 41 sacks, marking the third consecutive season that he was brought down over 40 times. That stated, there were signs of improvement as the line allowed two sacks or less in 11 of the Falcons’ 16 games. The total number got out of whack thanks to 16 sacks combined in three games against the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs.

More concerning, however, is the fact that the Falcons were unable to run the ball with much consistency. The Falcons finished the year ranked 27th in rushing offense by averaging only 95.8 yards per game. Only once did a running back rush for more than 100 yards in a game, which occurred when Todd Gurley totaled 121 yards and a touchdown in a Week 5 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Offseason outlook: In Tennessee, Smith’s offense was a run first attack that used plenty of play action in the passing game. So much of the Titans’ success depended on the offensive line and an exceptional running back. This offseason will be important for the Falcons’ offensive line when it comes to organized team activities and minicamp.

As for offseason acquisitions, a high-priced lineman is probably off the table. Signing some veteran backups who can step up in the event of injury will be the likely route in free agency.

2021 draft options: This is where things get interesting. If the Falcons decide they don’t need a quarterback with the fourth-overall pick, Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell could be sitting there for the taking. If the Falcons go this route, they could start him at left guard as a rookie. He could also begin his career at left tackle with Matthews sliding to left guard.

If the Falcons choose a quarterback, or any other position for that matter, selecting a guard in the second or third round could be an option instead. As for interior offensive linemen who might be available in the early second round, USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker and Tennessee’s Trey Smith are options.

Conclusion: The Falcons began the 2021 season with five former first-round offensive linemen starting. Even with the numbers being the way they were, it’s tough to deny that individually these players have talent. Smith’s background could be exactly what the Falcons need to achieve greater results with the offensive line.

Previous stories in this series

Falcons seek to fill out tight end room with only one under contract

Mixed results lead to questions with Falcons’ special teams

Falcons’ defensive line needs better sack production in 2021

Falcons linebackers offered stability on struggling defense

Next staff will have some retooling to do in secondary