The Atlanta Falcons used four picks on the defensive side of the ball in this year's draft, but it's one of their two other draft picks that could emerge as the gem of the class.
Former Temple center Matt Hennessy, who Atlanta selected in the third round, might not be a player many fans are familiar with, but it's immediately clear why the Falcons wanted him. Hennessy's style of play is very reminiscent of current Falcons center Alex Mack. That's not by accident, either, as Mack is the player Hennessy studied while at Temple.
Hennessy's offensive line coach in 2016 was George DeLeone, who had worked directly with Mack as a member of the Cleveland Browns. This first-hand education set Hennessy on a track to land with the Falcons and get the chance to work directly with the player he sought to emulate.
And emulate he did. Watching Hennessy play is almost eerie for someone familiar with the way Mack plays the game. Now, it's hardly appropriate to compare a player who has never played a snap in the NFL to a six-time Pro Bowler who was recently named to the league’s all-decade team. From a purely stylistic point of view, though, it's an apt comparison.
Hennessy is an athletic offensive lineman who doesn't lose any of his blocking ability when on the move. Temple utilized a lot of the same outside zone schemes that the Falcons do, so he has direct experience with what Atlanta will ask him to do in space.
One of the aspects of Mack's game that makes him such a valuable player for Atlanta is his ability to peel off of a double-team block and reach another defender at the second level. Hennessy was often at his best when executing this type of assignment. He can beat second-level defenders to a spot and showcases nice balance once he locks onto an opponent.
"He's got really quick feet," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Hennessy. "He can get out on the edge. He pulls at center. There's a lot of stuff that he does that you want to see in a wide zone offensive scheme."
Although he played center in college, the Falcons plan to have Hennessy compete for the starting left guard spot. They believe the qualities that made him successful at center are translatable to other interior offensive line spots as well, and Hennessy could offer an upgrade over the team's other left guard options.
The Falcons aren't just hoping to improve their effectiveness running the football in 2020, they'll need to do a better job of keeping Matt Ryan upright. Atlanta surrendered 50 sacks in 2019, tied for the fifth-most in the NFL. There will certainly be an adjustment period for Hennessy against professional pass rushers, but he'll likely get some help from Mack early on and he is already pretty competent in this area.
Hennessy is on the smaller side for NFL offensive linemen – 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds – but he displayed a strong anchor in pass protection at Temple. It was quite impressive to see how regularly he could absorb an opponent's bull rush and halt any upfield movement. If he's able to do the same against better competition, the pocket in front of Ryan should be clean more often than not.
The Falcons have always valued adding specific types of players for their respective offensive and defensive schemes, and Hennessy is very much in line with that approach. More than any other player in this class, however, it's easy to envision how he directly fits into what Atlanta does on the field. He combines the necessary athleticism to play the wide zone, refined hand technique to gain leverage on defenders and a toughness that drives him to finish each block through the whistle.
No other situation would be as beneficial for Hennessy as the one he's walking into. With the opportunity to learn from Mack, one of the game's very best, for at least the next season, Hennessy can continue to grow his game alongside a terrific mentor.
"As a young player, at such a developmental position always looking to get better, having a veteran of that caliber will be absolutely incredible," Hennessy said. "It will be extremely helpful as I enter the league."
With the No. 78 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons select Temple center Matt Hennessy.