Falcons must concentrate on offensive line

sports@macon.comJanuary 21, 2014 

The Atlanta Falcons coaches are in Mobile this week for the Senior Bowl. But they’re not just scouting, they’re actually coaching.

It is one positive in a season full of negatives. Atlanta’s coaches can get a first-hand look at some players they might be interested in for the draft in May.

Most expect the Falcons to focus on the offensive line this offseason, and if they don’t they might as well leave the NFL. Quarterback Matt Ryan is the golden boy, the franchise, and he does a team no good if he’s in a body cast from having no offensive line.

There’s a pressing need to draft at least two offensive linemen, and they will probably have to get a veteran starter through free agency, as well.

Yes, this Falcons’ offensive line of scrimmage needs three new players -- at the least.

Atlanta’s front office made a humongous mistake last summer when it allowed center Todd McClure to retire and released veteran Tyson Clabo. The Falcons turned the line over to Mike Johnson, who had never been healthy before and didn’t make it through training camp, and two second-year players -- Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes.

It was a disaster. Konz never took control of the center position. Holmes seemed lost, and his lack of development practically cost offensive line coach Pat Hill his job. And Garrett Reynolds, who finally stayed healthy after a couple of tough injury-plagued seasons, was so bad he was inactive for the final game of the season.

The only lineman from last year guaranteed to return next season is guard Justin Blaylock, who is a solid yet unspectacular player. That’s it. Baker must prove he is healthy, and the other three spots are up for grabs.

Atlanta must take an offensive lineman with the sixth overall pick in the first round. Sure, a defensive player might tempt the Falcons, but they need to stick with the offensive line. There’s a great chance they can get a franchise lineman, like Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews or Auburn’s Greg Robinson.

But can the Atlanta front office adequately evaluate the linemen? The track record is spotty, led by the selection of Sam Baker in the first round of the 2008 draft. Baker has been inconsistent – great at times (2012) and simply ordinary in other seasons. He missed most of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

In 2009, general manager Thomas Dimitroff selected Reynolds out of North Carolina in the fifth round. He’s a free agent and probably won’t return. Johnson was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft. His injuries have kept us from knowing exactly how good he might be, and now he’s a free agent, too.

Joe Hawley was the fourth-round pick that year. He has been a valuable sixth man for the offensive line and could be pressed into starting duty this year at center if the Falcons don’t find anyone better.

In 2011, the Falcons picked Andrew Jackson out of Fresno State in the seventh round. He didn’t make it through training camp. Then Konz and Holmes were taken in the second and third rounds in 2012.

For some reason, the Falcons did not take an offensive lineman in last April’s draft. That was a huge mistake. A lineman was desperately needed, but they simply went in another direction.

This downward spiral for the offensive line started a few years ago when the Falcons released guard Harvey Dahl, who when combined with Clabo gave Atlanta a nasty one-two punch on the line of scrimmage.

And that’s what this line needs -- nasty players who are mean and will do anything and everything to protect Ryan. Think about Mike Kenn, Jeff Van Note and Bob Whitfield. They are arguably the three best offensive linemen in Falcons history. That’s the type of player the Falcons need.

Look at Denver’s offensive line. The Broncos kept Peyton Manning upright all day Sunday against New England. The Patriots barely touched Manning, and if the Broncos’ linemen can do the same next week against a tougher Seattle defense, Denver will probably win. Manning is great, but his offensive line has been the key all season.

Dimitroff has no room for error. He cannot strike out this time in his evaluation and in his decisions. Fixing the offensive line should be priority No. 1 for the Falcons. It might not be the splashy move other teams make, but it’s the only thing that can get Atlanta back on track to be a Super Bowl contender.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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