The Atlanta Falcons offensive line proved steady in 2022 after years of instability.
Thus it became a priority for Falcons head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot to maintain that stability heading into 2023. That mission was accomplished last week when the team successfully re-signed starting right tackle Kaleb McGary to a new three-year deal, a move that came only days after making right guard Chris Lindstrom the highest-paid guard in the NFL on a massive extension.
The Falcons are looking to build it better in the future, which requires a firm foundation. The offensive line serves that function in Atlanta thanks to being arguably the team’s biggest strength in 2022. It marked a massive turnaround from the previous year and other past seasons when instability reigned.
It’s important that the Falcons maintain their run-first offensive identity in their first year with Desmond Ridder as their full-time starter at quarterback. The Falcons finished 2022 ranked third in rushing yards and maintaining that dominance on the ground will be key to their success in 2023.
Lindstrom and McGary form a dynamic duo
Maintaining that rushing success would have been difficult without McGary manning the right side of the offensive line. He and Lindstrom serve as the strength of the unit. In back-to-back seasons, the Falcons have ranked seventh on outside runs to the right side, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric. That’s notable given that the Falcons’ 2021 rushing attack ranked 31st. It goes to show how potent a duo McGary and Lindstrom make, even if the rest of the unit is struggling to create movement.
While we can expect the Falcons’ passing game’s continued growth under Ridder’s guidance due to the healthy return of tight end Kyle Pitts and the continued development of Drake London, the team’s bread and butter will still be running the football.
Locking up McGary on a very manageable contract should allow the team to keep him and Lindstrom together for at least the next three seasons, especially with Lindstrom getting a monster contract extension last week. Therefore, the right side of the offensive line should form the potent backbone of the offense for many years to come.
Yet, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other areas of the unit that the team must buttress as well. Center is a spot where Drew Dalman has flashed ability but needs to become more consistent to take that next step. Getting his snapping issues under control will go a long way to putting him on the path to being the Falcons’ long-term center.
Work still needs to be done at left guard
Left guard is also a question mark as a spot where veteran Elijah Wilkinson performed admirably in his first real stead playing the position in 2022. He is a free agent, and it would make sense to bring him back to maintain continuity on the left side, where it has been lacking in recent years.
Left tackle Jake Matthews has been a rock, with a 144-game starting streak that goes back to Week 2 of his 2014 rookie season. But the Falcons have too often had a revolving door next to him for the past several years. Over the past five seasons, 11 different players have at least started a game for the Falcons at left guard. Matthews’ ability to maintain a high level of play despite the frequent turmoil next to him is a testament to his steadiness.
The Falcons had a similar revolving door at right guard for nearly a decade before they eventually found Lindstrom. But the preceding eight seasons between him and Harvey Dahl led to a lot more instability in the back half of Matt Ryan’s career.
The Falcons don’t want to repeat that mistake with Ridder at the outset of his career. Nipping their left guard vacancy in the bud this offseason would greatly aid in Ridder’s development by ensuring there isn’t a major weak link in front of him.
It’s unlikely the Falcons will be able to do that in free agency, given the thinness of the market. Far too many of this year’s free agent guards seem more like the middling mercenaries such as Brandon Fusco, James Carpenter, and Chris Chester that the Falcons too often relied upon to get by up front in the past.
Instead, the team could find greater stability with the right draft pick. As we saw with Lindstrom and McGary when the Falcons selected both in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, it may take some time for any rookie left guard to hit his stride.
Such a rookie could be the final piece of the Falcons offensive line puzzle that they’ve been trying to solve for years. The frustrating inability of the previous regime headed by coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff to solve that puzzle was a major contributing factor to their downfall.
Smith and Fontenot will set themselves, the team, the quarterback, and the rest of the line up for a better tomorrow if they can walk away from the offseason feeling like there is more than a short-term answer at left guard and center. Creating stability and success in those spots will go a long way toward ensuring the stability and success of the entire line, both now and in the future.