INDIANAPOLIS – The Atlanta Falcons have taken a long, hard look at themselves after a disappointing 2018 season, and they are now focused on confronting some of the hard truths they've uncovered, including strengthening the offensive line.
"This was a tough year for us, of course," Falcons general manger Thomas Dimitroff said of the offensive line at the NFL combine. "We know that we need to continue to fortify it. Whether that's in the draft or whether it's in free agency, yes it's important."
How the team goes about fortifying the unit remains to be seen. Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack were both Pro Bowlers in 2018, but there could be competition at the other three spots this spring.
Atlanta likely won't have the ammo to bring in a top-tier free agent that would carry a high price tag, but it could still find a player it likes at a good price tag the way the team did with Brandon Fusco last offseason. The Falcons recently signed tackle Ty Sambrailo to the three-year contract, and it's clear they are high on him as a potential starting option moving forward.
"We really believe that he did a really good job when he was asked to step up, and we continue to think that he will continue to do so," Dimitroff said of Sambrailo. "There's no question in my mind that he has starter ability as well, and it's just a matter of how it comes together."
But even with Matthews, Mack and Sambrailo, who started the final four games, on hand in 2018, the Falcons were 27th in rushing yards per game and allowed 42 sacks on quarterback Matt Ryan, tied for the eight-most in the NFL.
Still, finding an NFL-ready offensive lineman in the upcoming draft will be difficult. Given the various innovations that have shaped college football over the past decade, fewer offensive linemen are coming into the league ready to handle professional defenses.
"Collegiately, guys coming out in the draft, there's a long way to go," Dimitroff said. "… But the way that they're going to continue to improve, and expeditiously improve is by being on the field. You can't just tuck them away for a year, maybe like in the past, that's not how it works right now.
"I love the fact that we are open to playing those young guys. We think there are some legitimate individuals both in free agency and in the draft, so we'll see where we go."
The Falcons have some young offensive linemen on the roster who have taken their lumps in games during recent years. Sambrailo is one such player, and guard Wes Schweitzer is another. Both players have improved, but it's up to the team to decide whether they are comfortable with slotting either or both into a starting spot.
With nine picks in this year's NFL Draft, the Falcons have a variety of different paths they could take. Now more than ever, teams seem to eschew conventional wisdom in an effort to get a leg up on the competition.
"Old-time theory was, never," Dimitroff said of taking a guard in the first round. "You would never take a guard that early. And now, you've seen the change over this wave, probably over the last 10 years … I'm a lot more open to that now than I ever would have been … I think things have changed and most people understand that there are some really good O-linemen out there."
If solidifying the offensive line is a priority for the Falcons this offseason, there are a few different ways the team could go about it. Dimitroff understands the importance of protecting his franchise quarterback, but the solution might rely on patience and development rather than a draft-night miracle.