In 2018, the Falcons made a $150 million investment in quarterback Matt Ryan.
After seeing him get poked, prodded and knocked around 108 times last season, the franchise was determined to protect its immense investment.
In free agency the Falcons added five blockers and spent $12 million in guaranteed money and then selected two potential starters on the offensive line in the first round of the NFL draft, while giving up some valuable draft capital.
In all, the Falcons added seven players, two linemen, two cornerbacks, two running backs and a hybrid defensive end/tackle in the NFL draft, which concluded on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.
“So, we were aggressive, we were not going to be sitting on our hands,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. “We wanted to make sure that we were coming away with two big guys that were going to protect a major investment and part of our team.”
In addition to getting hit a career-high 108 times, Ryan was sacked 42 times last season. He was sacked 44 times in 2013, when the Falcons’ last offensive line rebuild went haywire.
The Falcons want to keep Ryan clean, unleash their running game and allow Ryan to step forward in the pocket on passing plays.
“That interior is so unbelievably important for guys like Matt to step up,” Dimitroff said. “Yes, outside we know how important it is off the edge, but if your guy can't climb up inside (that’s a problem).”
Since the failed drafting of center Peter Konz (second round) and tackle Lamar Holmes (third round) in 2012, the Falcons have mostly fixed their line woes through free agency.
“Some teams think you can go out in free agency and do it, some teams think you can do it in the draft and develop the guards,” Dimitroff said. “But it's more and more important now to make sure your guards are adept. We happen to think that we want to do both, of course, this year.”
The Falcons added guards James Carpenter ($3.5 million signing bonus), Jamon Brown ($5.5 million) and Adam Gettis in free agency and re-signed right tackle Ty Sambrailo ($3 million), who finished last season as a starter.
“We were going to invest in it not only in free agency, but in the draft,” Dimitroff said. “It’s going to be the five best players, that’s what it is going to be.”
If the rookies start immediately, someone making a lot of money will be sitting on the bench.
“We are not worried about it,” Dimitroff said. “We are not worried about offending anyone. We are not worried about having invested money in certain areas.”
Under Dimitroff, the Falcons have a porous record of drafting offensive linemen. When scouting this group of linemen, Dimitroff and the scouting department took a different approach that culminated in the picks of Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in the first round.
“We have been a lot more diligent and direct to make sure that we had a complete collaboration, not saying that we weren’t collaborative back then,” Dimitroff said. “But we are getting, one, two or three of our offensive line coaches involved. Our strength-and-conditioning coaches involved from an athletic standpoint, a movement standpoint.”
Dimitroff, coach Dan Quinn, assistant general manager Scott Pioli, director of college scouting Steve Sabo, a number of scouts and assistant coaches were involved in assessing the linemen in this draft.
“We had a very good collection of people so that we could make sure 100 percent that when Dan and I, in the very end, took all of that information that we have as much (information) as we can so that we can make an educated decision on the type of player that’s going to be a fit for us both on and off the field,” Dimitroff said.
When Konz was drafted, his 18 lifts of 225 pounds on the bench press was a red flag that the Falcons ignored. Some questioned if he was stout enough to anchor at the center position.
Holmes had 22 reps, but his three-cone number was 7.74 seconds, suggesting he’d have trouble moving in tight spaces.
Lindstrom had 25 lifts and an explosive 30.5 inch vertical jump and 7.61 three-cone time. Lindstroms pulls and plays well in space. There are concerns about him being catcher and anchoring.
McGary had 23 lifts, 33.5 vertical jump and 7.66 three-cone time. He can be robotic and has to work on his leverage. Elite pass-rushers give him trouble.
Offensive line coach Chris Morgan and assistant offensive line coach Bob Kronenberg must get both of them ready for the NFL and it may take more than five exhibition games.
That’s why the Falcons doubled-down on the free agents. They are now insurance while the rookies are being developed to eventually take over.
“We understand and we talk about Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes,” Dimitroff said. “Honestly, whether if we bring free agents in or if we’re on the road working people out, we are that much more focused on making sure that we have everyone brought in.
“It doesn’t mean if one person is not buying in, that we are not going to do that. I wanted to acquire as much information as possible from all of the people that are touching, directly and indirectly, our offensive line.”
Morgan and Kronenberg were involved. Drafting linemen is not an exact science.
“We feel really good about our approach in free agency and our approach in the draft,” Dimitroff said. “Those are four guys that were added to our team that are going to be really important parts for the development of this offensive line.”
With all of the linemen added, Quinn is sleeping better these days.
“The same things that kept me up at night, that feels a lot better,” Quinn said. “I’ll sleep better tonight knowing that we’ll be really battling. You know me, as a coach, competition is the central theme here. I know by adding these guys we’ve strengthened this group.”
Quinn is not ready to hand over any starting spots to the rookies.
“It will take a while to figure it out,” Quinn said. “I’m looking forward to that competition. Grittiness doesn’t win a press conference. But it wins ball games.”