The Atlanta Falcons recognized they had an offensive line problem at the end of the 2018 season. So in the last two drafts, the Falcons have selected three offensive linemen on the first two days, including two in the first round.
Now these investments, mostly because of injuries, have yet to fully pan out on the field, but NFL Network analyst Shaun O’Hara, who is also a Vegas Insider representative, loves the direction the Falcons are taking with their offensive line.
In 2019, the Falcons selected guard Chris Lindstrom at No. 14 overall and then traded back up into the first round to No. 31 to grab tackle Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom only played in five games because of a foot injury last year, and McGary missed valuable practice time and the 2019 preseason because of heart surgery, but O’Hara called both “tough physically and really good culture guys.” Both are expected to start alongside each other on the right side of the Atlanta offensive line this season.
During the draft in April, the Falcons added offensive lineman Matt Hennessy from Temple in the third round for depth.
“I thought that was a great pickup,” O’Hara said. “Watching him on film, he absolutely looks like he could be a great protege for Alex Mack, and I think bringing him into the mix, he can play guard if they need him to, but having him there to be able to kind of learn under Alex and kind of watch him work, watch him study and learn how he watches film, I think that’s a huge pickup for that O-line room and really for that center position whenever he’s ready to step in.”
Mack is a six-time Pro Bowler, but he snapped his streak of consecutive Pro Bowl appearances with a subpar 2019 season and will turn 35 in November. It's possible Hennessy, or perhaps even Lindstrom with Hennessy sliding in at right guard, could start at center for the Falcons as early as 2021.
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The New Orleans Saints remain the front runners in the NFC South, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have arguably received more headlines than any other team in the NFC this offseason. The Falcons will face arguably the toughest schedule in the league and will be competing with two other teams possessing Super Bowl aspirations in the same division.
But O’Hara argued the installation of Atlanta’s new pieces along the offensive line, when healthy, will make the Falcons competitive.
“They won some games last year in the second half of the season when their offense really started to click. I think defensively they still have some talented guys. They need guys to stay healthy.”
O’Hara added that he was "proud" of Falcons owner Arthur Blank for refusing to “discard great coaches and great men just to appease the masses” last year when fans called to fire Dan Quinn and the rest of the coaching staff. On top of health, the NFL analyst cited the additions of running back Todd Gurley and edge rusher Dante Fowler as key players for the Falcons getting back to the playoffs.
Gurley and Fowler are replacing running back Devonta Freeman and outside linebacker Vic Beasley, respectively. Both Freeman and Beasley were key components to the Falcons reaching the Super Bowl during the 2016 season.
Last year, Gurley and Fowler both played for the Los Angeles Rams. Gurley rushed for a career-low 857 yards but scored 12 touchdowns while Fowler recorded 11.5 sacks. The 2019 season was the first time Fowler reached double digits in sacks, and it was his only full season playing alongside two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
NFL teams and coaches plan to continue their virtual workouts next week while waiting for approval to return to team facilities amid the coronavirus. Without any major sporting events this weekend, O’Hara is participating in the Vegas Insider Capper Poker Series.