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Falcons Mailbag: What can be done to shore up the offensive line next season?

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https://theathletic.com/728848/2018/12/21/falcons-mailbag-what-can-be-done-to-shore-up-the-offensive-line-next-season/

Falcons Mailbag: What can be done to shore up the offensive line next season?

If Julio Jones is able to play, he’ll play. 

But due to injuries to his hip and ribs, Jones officially was given the questionable designation for the Falcons’ game Sunday against Carolina. Jones was able to get in a limited practice Friday, with head coach Dan Quinn calling Jones a game-time decision. Quinn did seem somewhat confident that Jones could give it a go Sunday. 

“Usually when he can get some work in on Friday it’s a good thing,” Quinn said. 

Quinn added that Jones will get some additional work during the walkthrough Saturday before the team heads to Charlotte for the game. Jones was seen running some routes and catching passes from the quarterbacks during the media viewing periods of practice. 

While the Falcons have had a disappointing season at 5-9, Jones is leading the NFL in receiving with 1,511 yards. He has recorded 1,400 yards in each of his past five seasons and 1,500 yards in three of those. 

On Thursday, Jones was asked about his availability for the game.

“I’m day to day,” Jones said. “I’m getting better. Working every day and doing everything I can to go Sunday. Who knows what’s going to happen? I can’t give you anything right now. I’m just working to get better, and we’ll see what happens Sunday.”

On to this week’s mailbag:

How can we continue to improve the defensive personnel and their techniques? We have mediocre talent at some positions and too many repeated mistakes (e.g., too far off opponents, DBs aren’t looking back to play the ball, OL reaching for defender, DL aren’t using techniques I’ve seen DQ coach them up on) — Anthony R. 

While coaching up young players is important, there are specific skill sets young professionals are expected to have once they enter the league. When it comes to the defensive side of the ball, sometimes a coach may think a player has the potential to be coached up based on his raw talent ability. And then that player might end up not have that kind of potential after all. 

Sometimes, when watching this year’s Falcons team, I wonder if that’s the case for some of these players, that maybe they aren’t as good, relatively speaking in regards to the rest of the league, as we made them out to be in the preseason. Or perhaps, some of them have been in the league for a while and are now seeing an inevitable decline. Unreported injuries are often a factor, too — the “nicks and bruises” that aren’t put on the weekly injury reports. 

But I definitely see the point you’re making. There have been way too many preventable penalties on both sides of the ball. There have been some technique issues that the coaching staff has harped on. Marquand Manuel noted how Brian Poole wasn’t playing up to his standard until about halfway through the year, which came after Manuel sat down and challenged Poole on the topic. Rookie Isaiah Oliver is a cornerback who has been learning a new technique at the line of scrimmage. He has been getting more playing time lately to hopefully springboard him into next year. 

With the current personnel, all the coaching staff can do is continue working with the players’ various skill sets. Next season should bring the return of two starting safeties, which should be a big boost.

But with the issues you highlighted, which have contributed to this 5-9 season, a staff shakeup is all but expected to happen. Now, who goes and who stays? That has yet to be determined. But I’d have to think assistants responsible for the position groups that have seen the least development are probably the most concerned about their futures with the franchise. 

We need to stop winning games. A top-five pick is worth more than even a top-10. My question, Jason, is this: Say Atlanta finishes with the fifth-overall pick and decides to trade back (12-15 range), what package of picks could they get back? — Alex J. 

I hate to break it to you, Alex, but the Falcons aren’t going to try to lose. This isn’t the NBA, where franchises make that conscious decision to tank. In basketball, there is also a much bigger difference in getting a top-five pick and then picking from six through 10. In the NFL, there usually isn’t that wide of a discrepancy in the top 15 — excluding quarterbacks, who are usually the cornerstone of teams. 

In 2012, Trent Richardson was the third overall pick. At the time, that pick by Cleveland seemed to make sense. That same draft, Philadelphia took Fletcher Cox with the 13th pick. That selection has worked out. In 2014, the Rams took Greg Robinson second and Aaron Donald 13th overall. Robinson was misevaluated. Donald has gone on to prove he should have probably gone second overall in that draft. The point is, the Falcons losing won’t guarantee that they wind up with a franchise-changing player. The NFL draft process isn’t like other sports, where it is easier to identify the players who will go on to have great careers. 

It makes sense for the Hawks to tank for Zion Williamson, who appears to be a franchise-altering prospect. Would losing the final two games for Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver or (insert any of the Clemson defensive linemen here) propel the Falcons into years and years of on-field success? There is no way to know. And Atlanta still could get one of those highly regarded defensive linemen in the 10-15 range, considering how deep that position group goes this year. 

The NFL draft is the biggest crapshoot of them all. So much of it involves luck and whether a player arrives at the right place and right time. Plus, if the Falcons win these final two games and still feel the need to move up to get their player, they will do so. 

But let’s move on from my soapbox and get to your question. 

Using last year as a guide in this scenario, the Falcons maybe could expect to get two picks in the second- and third-round range, while also giving up a late-rounder if they were to trade from a mid-top-10 pick to the 12-15 range. Tampa Bay and Buffalo made a similar trade in the 2018 draft, with Tampa Bay giving Buffalo its seventh overall selection for the 12th. In addition, the Bills gave the Bucs two second-round picks. The Bucs also gave up a seventh-round selection. 

What can (Thomas) Dimitroff do to shore up the offensive line? I imagine our first-round pick will be a defensive player, but in the second round, we could draft a decent lineman. Considering the money we gave Matt (Ryan), we need to give him the protection needed for him to succeed. That’s how it works in New England. I know Dimitroff struggles with drafting OL, but I can’t imagine there’s a lot of money to spend on free agents when we need to extend (Grady) Jarrett and others. — Mark C. 

I wholeheartedly agree about Ryan needing better protection. That has been quite the issue, especially during that five-game losing streak. Ryan has been sacked 40 times this year (well 39, considering one of those sacks was the fluky botched pass against Green Bay). The most sacks Ryan has taken in a season was 44 in 2013. Five during the next two weeks would supplant that in a single season. 

As for free agency, I think the Falcons will do what they can to free up some money if there is a player they want on the offensive line. While Jones is expected to get a new deal, there are some candidates to be let go or to have their contracts restructured. 

Depending on how the draft board shakes out, Jonah Williams and Greg Little are first-round prospects the Falcons potentially could take. If they don’t take an offensive lineman in the first round, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team address the position in the second-through-fourth rounds. 

The Falcons also may spend some time developing two younger offensive linemen on the team. Ty Sambrailo is 26 years old and has started the past two games at right tackle. While he gave up a sack against Arizona, he has aided an offensive line that was struggling immensely in weeks prior. 

Then there is Matt Gono, the 22-year-old undrafted rookie who has been on the 53-man roster all season long but inactive each game. Gono has repped in practice at tackle all year. Well, that is until the past two weeks. On Friday, I noticed Gono taking some reps at guard during the post-practice developmental period, in which practice squad and back-of-the-roster players get together for some drill work. Gono was taking part in one-on-ones at left guard, which, I thought, was an interesting development.

“We want to get as many snaps on tape as we can so we have a full evaluation at a couple of spots,” Quinn said after I inquired about Gono.

Quinn said that Gono’s physical traits, at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, are ideal for the pro game. Gono, who played collegiately at Division III Wesley College, simply has needed to learn the ins and outs of the professional game. It appears the Falcons are preparing Gono for the second offseason, to see if he can help this offensive line in the future. 

The Atlanta fan base is justifiably calling for the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian. However, the offense at times this year has played to its potential, especially in the passing game. The same cannot be said for the defense as for much of the year it has been generationally bad. Manuel is amazingly escaping the scrutiny Sarkisian receives from all quarters. Tactical errors and sloppy play have cost the team at least half a dozen wins during Manuel’s tenure (see the Saints, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys games from this year alone). Marquand is clearly overmatched in his position. Even factoring in the injuries in the back seven, he has not demonstrated the basic strategic awareness to stop replacement level NFL offenses like the New York Giants and consistently makes poor calls in end of game/half situations. Credited with developing the secondary, virtually all of our young talent regressed this year — see (Robert) Alford, (Takk) McKinley, (Desmond) Trufant, et al. Would you rather not have a seasoned replacement such as Marvin Lewis — remember his Ravens defenses ranked at the top of the league before he became Cincinnati HC. A veteran like ML would, IMO, be a significant upgrade especially if Keanu Neal returns to form in 2019? —David H. 

I think the masses at large are giving Manuel more of a pass because of the injuries his unit suffered, which you did allude to. While it is important for any team to overcome such losses, the fact that Manuel lost Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen in the first three weeks probably gave him the leeway to work through retooling and reshaping the unit. Losing the quarterback of the defense in Allen and a matchup nightmare in Neal forced the Falcons’ defense to adjust its style of play, which helped result in what everyone has seen. But yes, even with Jones back, the only game the defense looked exceptional was against Arizona, the worst team in the NFL. 

That being said, while the defense has shown improvement, it has been gradual at best. And I think that is why you have probably seen more criticism from the fan base directed his way the past few weeks. 

As for Lewis, I don’t think he, specifically, would be a fit. When he was in Baltimore, he had elite players. It was also almost two decades ago. His time as a quality coordinator probably has passed him by. Not to mention, I would think he wouldn’t want to be a coordinator after all those years as a head coach. 

That isn’t to say that, in the event that Atlanta makes a change, a veteran defensive coordinator couldn’t succeed in this new-age era of professional football. It’s just all about being the right fit for what the head coach wants. We’ll see what direction Quinn decides to go when the season ends. 

What are the Falcons college scouts up to right now? Do you see them in the building? Do they scout bowl games? — Andy S. 

The college scouts are busy all season long. They go to colleges across the country for practices and games. The Falcons’ scouts are no different. When I covered UGA football, I would see NFL scouts from just about every team come through. With UGA being close by, Dimitroff himself occasionally goes to practice. You occasionally will see scouts walking around the Falcons’ team facility, sure. At this time of the year, scouts will be dispatched to bowl games to further the analysis of various prospects. 

The offense this year has been either feast or famine. Obviously there are some differences in the defenses they’ve had to face (Baltimore and Arizona seem to be on opposite sides of the proverbial defensive production coin), but it’s clear that when this thing is clicking, it’s clicking hard. Matt Ryan’s numbers are continuing to keep pace with his MVP season and Julio Jones continues to set records. Where do you think the inconsistencies lie? Is it execution? Is it focus? Is there anything to the fact that we’re 0-2 (I think) against interim coaches this year? — John K. 

It’s this simple: The Falcons have not been able to consistently run the ball. If the running game had been there at an average level, perhaps they beat Philadelphia, New Orleans (at home) and Cincinnati. Against the Eagles, the Falcons couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone at the goal line. Against the Saints, they couldn’t chew up the clock with a lead. Against the Bengals, they couldn’t get 1 yard late in the game. And then they didn’t even have a shot against New Orleans (away) and Baltimore because they couldn’t get the running game going whatsoever. For as great as the passing game has been, the lack of establishing a balanced offense has hurt the Falcons quite a bit. 

When it comes to why the rushing attack has been inconsistent, execution and focus are easily at the forefront. The coaching staff benched Ben Garland (who is back to rotating in at right guard) and Ryan Schraeder for Zane Beadles and Sambrailo in recent weeks. Last Sunday against a bad Arizona team, a big emphasis was placed on focus. And it paid off, with the Falcons having their best rushing day of the season. This will certainly be an area to improve upon in the offseason. 

As for the final part of your question, I wouldn’t put much stock in the fact the Falcons are 0-2 against interim coaches (Cleveland’s Gregg Williams and Green Bay’s Joe Philbin). As it turns out — and I’m shocked, I tell you! — the Browns are a lot better without Hue Jackson. Given the number of self-inflicted wounds against the Packers, it’s tough to say whether the Falcons would have won if Mike McCarthy was still coaching that day. 

Have there been any updates on how Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Devonta Freeman are progressing in their rehabs? How serious is the injury to Ito Smith? Are they all projected to be ready for minicamp this spring? — Robert H. 

I’ll start with the running backs. Smith underwent a knee scope, which is a minor procedure. He is expected to be ready to go for the offseason. Freeman is probably in good shape for the offseason program, barring any setbacks. His rehab from groin surgery continues, although he won’t be able to make it back for the final two games of the season. If everything progresses, I’d have to think he’ll be good to go for mini-camp. 

Neal and Allen are in different positions, considering the severity of their injuries. A torn ACL, which Neal suffered, can take up to nine months. Thanks to modern medicine, players in all sports are returning much quicker from ACL tears. The minimum amount of time missed can actually be six months. So truly, anywhere in the six-to-nine-month threshold is what you can expect with that type of injury. Neal occasionally has posted updates to his social media accounts, and he does appear to be working hard at his rehab. It’s still too early to tell when exactly he will be back. Considering his injury occurred in early September, I suppose there is a chance he could participate in mini-camp. If he is able to, however, I’d have to think the Falcons play it safe. 

The same can be said about Allen. Achilles tears generally take at least six months to heal following surgery, although those can be longer, as well. You also want to make sure a player like Allen has the proper explosion and is without limitations. 

The Falcons will take the safe route, more than likely, with these two players so that they will be good to go for as much of the regular season as possible. 

Do you have any confidence in (the Falcons) dedicating high picks for O-line/larger (still fast) defensive backs? I don’t really think that they have learned the lessons from this disappointing season vis-a-vis the lack of depth and the disadvantage of playing teams that are deep in larger, faster players that use that advantage on defense to blitz Ryan to death, and on offense to regularly consume huge amounts of time off the clock. — Charles M. 

It really just depends on how the board pans out on draft week. The Falcons won’t take an offensive lineman high just because one is available and it happens to be a position of need. If the player fits and is evaluated around that slot, then sure, I think the Falcons would take an offensive lineman. They needed one in 2014 and took Jake Matthews sixth overall. 

In all honesty, the defensive back to watch, in my opinion, is LSU’s Greedy Williams. He’s 6-3 and 183 pounds, which is the ideal size for a corner in Quinn’s defense. So I would not be surprised whatsoever if the Falcons go in this direction when the draft rolls around. 

I’ve mentioned in previous mailbags that this is the most important draft for Quinn and the front office. After a season like this, they have to get almost everything right when it comes to short-term improvements. That’s what truly makes Atlanta’s first-round selection intriguing.

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If we shore up the OL and pass rush in FA. I wouldn't be upset with Greedy or DeAndre Baker. Then DT in the 2nd round. This draft is deep at DL.

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I'm so sick of the narrative that New England emphasizes their O-Line. they have and undrafted OC, then a 3rd, 4th, 5th, then 7th round starters. the only real difference between our line and New England's line is that they get away with more holding than the Saints. matter of fact the only team that really emphasizes quality and actually has quality O-linemen is the Steelers, Chiefs and Rams. they are consistently performing well

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