Free Agency is underway and the Atlanta Falcons are making moves. Check out updates here as familiar faces return and new guys commit to the red and black.
Last year, the position battle at right guard was one of the biggest storylines throughout training camp and preseason. That figures to be the case again this summer.
With Chris Chester's status up in the air, Atlanta has a trio of candidates ready to compete for a starting job in between Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder: Ben Garland, Wes Schweitzer and Hugh Thornton.
Garland, who can play on both lines and special teams, showed a lot of promise in his first campaign with the Falcons. He played 101 snaps in 2016 – 52 on defense, 49 on offense – and, given his quickness, strength and mental make-up, could take on more responsibilities next year.
"He's a man of great character and the work ethic is what sets him apart," head coach Dan Quinn said in February. "The fact that he has a defensive background & played defensive line at the academy then converted to offensive line. That's something we tried in training camp, could this be another thing you could do? Having you play center and guard and kickoff return, could you add this to it? And in typical fashion, he said absolutely.
"That's when the first process began with him. We've been really pleased with his development. He's earned the respect of the other teammates because of that work ethic. He's been a real factor for us. One of the terms we use is guys that don't show up on the stat sheet but own their role and been exemplifies that as much as anybody."
Schweitzer didn't get any playing time during the regular season, but he also impressed before Chester ultimately retained his spot atop the depth chart. While he hasn't taken a regular-season rep in the NFL, he joined the Falcons last April with experience in a similar offense.
At San Jose State, Schweitzer played in a ZBS, and he learned the necessary techniques from Keith Carter, who came to Atlanta from SJSU in 2015.
"They'll battle for sure at the guard spot, and (we'll) see where it goes," Quinn said about Garland and Schweizter. "Both of them are unique. Both of them, in the run game, are really rock solid. Pass protection is something where you have to get in the fire. You have to go through it and do it."
"In practice they've shown real improvement. They are shining examples of our Plan D program. The amount of work that they put in pre-practice. … (They) are some of the first guys out on the practice field, Garland and Schweitzer. I'm sure they are out there before the media, on some days. The grit, the attitude, the resiliency that they have is on point."
Thornton showed a lot of promise at University of Illinois, prompting the Colts to choose him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He has struggled to stay healthy, though, playing 37 games from 2013-15 and missing all of last season with an ankle injury.
But he has displayed strong run blocking and has 32 NFL starts under his belt, so if he avoids IR, he could provide some valuable stability – even as a backup.
Of course, the Falcons could add intrigue to this competition by drafting a guard next month. Plenty of mocks have them using one of its first two selections on that position. Forrest Lamp, whom the team met with at the combine, is one name that's been connected to Atlanta; Dorian Johnson, Taylor Moton and Cam Robinson are others.
"On both sides of the ball, because there's five of them and four on the D-line, you're always in the front of your thinking at that spot," Quinn told ESPN. "I love looking at that [offensive line] position, too, to evaluate. … "For sure, the O-line has been a big topic, especially right now. It's who has them and who is developing them and where they're at in the draft."