The Atlanta Falcons will enter the 2020 offseason with more stability on their offensive line than they have had in recent years.
Four of the five spots have starters penciled in – Jake Matthews at left tackle, Alex Mack at center, Chris Lindstrom at right guard and Kaleb McGary at right tackle – leaving the left guard spot as the primary area of competition for the Falcons this spring and summer. At the NFL combine, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he believed there is currently a three-man battle for that job.
"I think we have three guys that will be competing for that spot right now as it stands," Dimitroff said. "We have Jamon Brown, we have James Carpenter, we have [Matt] Gono. We have some guys there that we think definitely have ability."
Brown and Carpenter were two veteran free agents the Falcons signed last offseason to compete for their two starting guard spots in training camp and deepen their offensive line group, overall. Carpenter earned the starting left guard spot out of training camp, while Lindstrom edged out Brown at right guard. After Lindstrom sustained a foot injury in the season opener, however, Brown took over at guard opposite of Carpenter.
Carpenter started 11 games for the Falcons in 2019, missing one game due to a knee injury and the final four games of the season due to a concussion that eventually landed him on injured reserve. While on the field, Carpenter's performance wasn't consistently up to the team's standard. His Pro Football Focus grade of 45.3 was the lowest among Falcons linemen and ranked 74th of the 80 qualified guards across the league. According to PFF, Carpenter allowed 23 hurries, tying him with McGary for the team high, and four sacks.
Brown started nine games last season, but he saw his role diminish towards the end of the season before missing the final two games due to an illness. Brown's season grade of 53.2 from PFF was slightly higher than Carpenter's but still ranked 62nd among all NFL guards. Per the site, Brown allowed 14 hurries and five quarterback hits but did not give up a sack in 2019.
After spending the 2018 season, his first in the NFL, on the Falcons' active roster but receiving no game action, Gono saw plenty of action during the 2019 preseason. He performed well during that time, especially as a pass blocker, earning a 78.8 grade from PFF, and looked to be making a case to get into the guard rotation. A back injury sidelined Gono for the start of the season, however, and he was only sparsely used late in the year.
Entering his third season, Gono will once again be a player the Falcons are keeping an eye on.
"Matt's a big dude, he moves really well; he's got that combination of athleticism," Dimitroff said. "He's got a feel that looks pretty natural about him. He needs to continue to focus on things, and we think there's definitely upside there. But this is an important year for him. Anytime you start getting out of the second year, we have to start looking and say, OK, is this guy an heir apparent at a certain spot? Wherever that is, whatever slot it is. And will there continue to be growth opportunities for him? And we do believe so in that area."
At this point in the offseason, the Falcons aren't taking anything off the table when it comes to improving their roster. Atlanta is once again keeping a close eye on any ways to improve the offensive line through free agency and the draft, as the unit's depth is nearly as important as the starting talent.
So, while the Falcons currently believe they have three players on the roster who could compete for the starting left guard spot come training camp, the situation could look different once free agency and the draft have passed.
"What I would say is we're always looking in free agency, we're looking on the market, we're looking on the street during the season," Dimitroff said. "It is really difficult to have a group of O-linemen, if you're keeping eight to nine, it's not easy just to go out there and pick a guy off the street and say he's going to start if someone goes down. That's really important for us. We have players that we can continue to build with. And, oh by the way, we have a draft out there that holds some pretty interesting opportunities at all O-line positions."