By investing two first-round picks in the offensive line during this year's NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons are the latest team to illustrate the importance of that position group.
The Falcons' offensive line was not immune to the plague of injuries that swept through the team last season. Starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco both went down with season-ending injuries early on in the year, and the Falcons never got fully settled at those spots. Ryan Schraeder's declining play last season also played a role in the unit's struggles, and he was eventually benched.
Once Levitre and Fusco went down for the season, the Falcons were forced to rely upon their depth to play at a starting level. The return was not what the team wanted, and a valuable lesson was learned in the process.
"I realize the importance of depth more now in knowing that we never want to be in that situation again," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "We lost our starters and the depth we had was good depth but they weren't the depth we needed to win game in and game out."
Atlanta offense contains as much talent as nearly any other in the NFL, but the inconsistent play up front on the offensive line in 2018 hampered their ability to present a balanced attack.
The Falcons averaged 98.3 rushing yards per game, the sixth-fewest among all NFL teams. This inability to run the ball consistently in games was most notable in short-yardage situations. Although the Falcons had the fourth-best passing offense, averaging 290.8 yards per game, Matt Ryan was sacked 42 times, eighth-most among quarterbacks.
To address this problem the Falcons signed two notable veteran free agent guards, James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, and they selected guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th-overall pick and Kaleb McGary with the 31st-overall pick. Even smaller moves, such as signing Adam Gettis and John Wetzel, show that Atlanta has indeed learned the importance of having that depth in the trenches.
It's about the group, not the individual
But what's interesting about the Falcons' re-tooling along the offensive line isn't the approach they are taking, but rather the uniqueness behind the philosophy of what makes a good offensive line.
More than any other unit on the field, the offensive line is truly a collective of individuals playing as one. Any single player on the line can directly impact the success or failure of the entire offense on any given snap. Because the success of the unit relies on every member of the group on each play instead of, say, one superstar player who accounts for large portion of a unit's production, the talent of each individual player may not actually be as important with the offensive line as the talent of the whole group.
"You've got to do your job with the guy next to you a lot of the time," Falcons offensive line coach Chris Morgan said. "Sometimes it's with two or three guys, sometimes it's actually with all five, depending on the call. And every man has to be held accountable. If one guy is off, it doesn't work usually. You've got to be in sync, you've got to be together."
Few players in the league understand that concept better than Falcons center Alex Mack. The six-time Pro Bowler has spent 10 seasons in the NFL playing in both Cleveland and Atlanta, meaning Mack has been at the heart of many different offensive lines throughout his career.
And no matter who he's surrounded by, chemistry remains crucial to the overall success of the group.
"It's a challenge every year just to get the starting five together and get those reps and get used to it and build that chemistry with each other," Mack said. "There's this huge amount of coaching involved in getting five guys on the same page, using the same sort of technique and being able to work interchangeably with each other."
It's hard enough to move a 300-pound defensive tackle out of a gap or fend off an edge rusher who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, but on every single play each of the five linemen must work in tandem. To do this, each player must not only understand his assignment on every play but also the jobs of his teammates next to him. On top of that, Mack explained that it's important to know how a certain player will go about executing that job, from the angles he may take to the footwork he will use.
The next man up has to be ready
When taking all of that into account, it's easy to see how losing one player along the offensive line impacts the performance of the entire group. If a team is forced to rotate at multiple positions, as the Falcons were in 2018, it can be difficult to find that chemistry and rhythm.
An often-overlooked part of Atlanta's offensive success in 2016 was the durability of the offensive line. The Falcons were the only team in the NFL to start the same group of offensive linemen in every regular season game, and it resulted in a historically efficient year.
"The more games you play as a whole line together the more things you've seen, the more things you know how to work with, the better you get to know the blocks," Mack said. "So, it helps you to kind of build and get rolling."
Atlanta hasn't been so fortunate the past two seasons. It's exceedingly rare for a team's starting offensive line to last a full season, which is why depth inside of the unit can be so valuable. As the Falcons seek to build new consistency up front, they're giving themselves plenty of options to work with.
Throughout the duration of the preseason, Lindstrom has been the team's starting right guard. He's already a skilled technician, and Lindstrom's athleticism fits exactly what the Falcons want to do. On the left side of the line, Carpenter and Brown – two former starters in 2018 - are locked in a battle for the guard spot. Whoever wins the starting left guard job, the other player immediately adds to Atlanta's depth at guard and could fill in at either spot in a pinch. That's the type of starting-caliber depth Dimitroff was looking for.
On the edges of the line, the Falcons have also worked hard to add quality players to their ranks. McGary missed the first four games of the preseason after a cardiac ablation procedure, but there's a chance he's ready for the final preseason game against Jacksonville. McGary was drafted in the first round to presumably earn a starting role. If he does that, current starter Ty Sambrailo will return to his backup swing tackle role. If he doesn't, McGary will be ready to step in if needed. Either way, there is a safety net in place if the starter goes down.
Atlanta's development program could pay off
Adding outside help is only one way to create depth, however. The Falcons have also prioritized developing depth, and it could pay off in a big way this season after what Matt Gono showed in the fourth preseason game.
An undrafted free agent last season, Gono spent the year on Atlanta's active roster but did not play in any games. By keeping him on the active roster the Falcons ensured no team could sign Gono away, allowing coaches to work with him in practice and develop him as a player. Those efforts appear to be paying off thus far, as Gono looked sharp while making his first ever NFL start against the Washington Redskins.
"It felt exactly like I hoped it would," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "When you're watching the game, watching the guys, it feels really normal as you're going through, especially at that position, that's what you hope to see."
While developing Gono, they've worked him at numerous spots on the offensive line. He's played both tackle spots as well as left guard, according to Quinn. This is something they've done with a number of players, including Wes Schweitzer and Sambrailo.
This approach provides more options should a player at a certain spot go down. Instead of limiting themselves to a couple of reserve players at a position, the Falcons can choose from a much larger replacement pool.
"We've had a number of different guys in different roles," Quinn said. "Doesn't have to mean the whole offense or the whole defense, but there has to be some things in their role if they were into that spot, what would we do? It can kind of be the same thing when you see somebody else move maybe from a guard to a tackle spot."
As with everything the Falcons have done on the offensive line this offseason, it all comes back to having reliable options available if attrition occurs in the fall.
This shotgun-scatter approach may prove to be effective. Because the success of the unit depends on each player executing his task, avoiding players who are liabilities up front is critical. If a starter goes down, the Falcons can't risk that hindering an offense that is one of the league's best. The second level of reserves don't have to be flashy, but they do have to be just as dependable.
"I would say on the offensive line being dependable would be ranked really high … If you can't be the same guy every play, you're not very useful," Mack said. "You'd rather have the guy who does OK absolutely every time than the guy that does great every other time and then just blows it the other half."
Atlanta's offensive line depth was clearly exposed in 2018, and the Falcons sought to tackle that issue head on. They may have not signed some big-ticket free agent that some fans were clamoring for, but they added quality veterans on the interior, used two valuable draft picks and emphasized development within that unit to provide them with quality options.
When it comes to the offensive line, that might just be the best approach to take.