Editor's Note:The 'Falcons Breakdown' series analyzes the state of every position group in Atlanta. We'll take a look back at the group's overall production in 2022, who we think will stay in 2023 and who could be on the chopping block. We'll also pinpoint the position's biggest question of the offseason.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Let's be honest, no one was expecting the Falcons to have one of the best collective offensive lines in 2022. Heck, if this is August 2022 and not January 2023, no one even knows what this 2022 starting five will look like, nor would anyone know how they would operate with a mobile quarterback like Marcus Mariota (and later, Desmond Ridder) in the pocket.
Let's think back to where this group was during the early days of training camp, shall we?
Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessy were battling it out for the starting center spot. The Falcons had picked up Chris Lindstrom's fifth-year option but chose not to do so for Kaleb McGary. They had extended Jake Matthews to anchor the left side of the protection, but left guard was still a liability (as it has been for years at this point). Who would win that spot? Could Jalen Mayfield return? Or would Elijah Wilkinson slide into the starting left guard role after the Falcons picked him up in free agency?
If this is August, no one knew what this group would look like, nor what they would become.
Prior to the start of the 2022 season, Pro Football Focus ranked the Falcons offensive line as the No. 28th group in the league. They fell into the bottom slot of PFF's "Tier 5," which was entitled "Uninspiring."
In reality, the 2022 Falcons offensive line couldn't be farther from that tagline. In 2022, they were the opposite.
And why is that? Well, for starters, it's not August 2022 anymore. It's January 2023, and what we know about this group now is that it was one of the most surprising and productive of positions not just in Atlanta but across the league. Pro Football Network ranked the Falcons as the 10th-best offensive line in 2022. Oh, and PFF? Well, that original 28th ranking jumped 23 spots to No. 5 in the league by the regular season's end.
According to PFF, no one on the Falcons offensive line (and that includes the four different players who ended up slotting in at left guard) allowed more than 27 total pressures. But if you followed the Falcons at all this year, you know the run game and how it was established in 2022 tells the story of this group.
As written when we took a look into the running back position in last week's 'Falcons Breakdown,' for the first time in a decade, the Falcons can say they are a run-first, run-often and run-productively team. The role this offensive front plays in that development cannot - and should not - be overlooked.
From the start of the 2022 season until the end, the Falcons put together one of the league's best rushing attacks, consistently ranking in the top five across the league in rushing yards per game and yards per carry average. By the season's end, Atlanta had the third-best rushing defense in yards per game average (159.9). They also had the fourth-best yards per attempt average (4.9) which was a full yard more than it was a year before (3.7).
The men that ultimately get the biggest spotlight put on them for reaching this feat are the running backs, but asked Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier or Caleb Huntley about their success. The first thing they'll tell you is that this Falcons offensive line deserves the largest chunk of the credit you give.
(Note: offensive grades for linemen attributed to Pro Football Focus)
LT, Jake Matthews: Overall PFF grade of 77.2 through 1,047 offensive snaps (17 starts) | 80.9 pass blocking grade | 69.5 run blocking grade | Six penalties | Four sacks allowed
LG, Elijah Wilkinson: Overall PFF grade of 64.3 through 574 offensive snaps (nine starts) | 70.7 pass blocking grade | 64.4 run blocking grade | Five penalties | Two sacks allowed
LG: Matt Hennessy: Overall PFF grade of 75.4 through 157 offensive snaps (three starts) | 69.0 pass blocking grade | 82.6 run blocking grade | Three penalties | Two sacks allowed
LG: Colby Gossett: Overall PFF grade of 55.3 through 267 offensive snaps (four starts) | 44.4 pass blocking grade | 59.6 run blocking grade | Three penalties | No sacks allowed
LG: Chuma Edoga: Overall PFF grade of 77.8 through 55 offensive snaps (one start) | 62.5 pass blocking grade | 84.9 run blocking grade | one penalty | No sacks allowed
C, Drew Dalman: Overall PFF grade of 65.9 through 1,051 offensive snaps (17 starts) | 55.1 pass blocking grade | 69.5 run blocking grade | Nine penalties | No sacks allowed
RG, Chris Lindstrom: Overall PFF grade of 95.0 through 1,047 offensive snaps (17 starts) | Highest graded offensive lineman of the 2022 regular season | 81.7 pass blocking grade | 93.1 run blocking grade | Two penalties | Two sacks allowed
RT, Kaleb McGary: Overall PFF grade of 86.6 through 1,051 offensive snaps (17 starts) | 66.9 pass blocking grade | 91.6 run blocking grade | Five penalties | Six sacks allowed
Who stays: Matthews, Dalman, Lindstrom, Hennessy (likely Justin Shaffer and Jalen Mayfield, too, if including players not on the active 53-man roster at the season's end)
If there is anyone the Falcons should be prioritizing extending this offseason, it's Lindstrom. The Falcons lone Pro Bowl representative, Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee and all-around best offensive guard in the league, should see a significant negotiation period heading his way as the new league year creeps closer. Lindstrom is everything the Falcons want 1) in the locker room, 2) representing their organization and 3) playing on the field. They picked up Lindstrom's fifth-year option last season, but if a deal can be struck, a larger chunk of the Falcons salary cap space in 2023 should be heading Lindstrom's way.
Matthews just signed a contract extension last season. He's not going anywhere, and neither should Dalman, who did enough at the center position in 2022 to hold onto the spot in 2023.
That leaves Hennessy, who lost the starting center position to Dalman at the start of the year but worked to slot in at left guard when Wilkinson went on injured reserve in the middle of the season. Still on his rookie deal for another year, the Falcons could continue to highlight Hennessy's move to left guard this offseason. In turn, we could see Hennessy fighting for that starting spot in 2023. He played well at left guard when he had the chance.
It could be an interesting experiment to move him to the spot officially next season, especially if the Falcons move on from Wilkinson, don't find the right fit via the draft or free agency, or do not think Shaffer or Mayfield are ready for the responsibility at starting left guard.
On the chopping block: Wilkinson, McGary, Edoga, Gossett
Wilkinson signed a one-year deal with the Falcons in 2022 and one could argue he was one of the best short-term signings the front office made last offseason. Though Wilkinson worked through a couple injuries that kept him off the field for specific stretches of the 2022 season, he was still a valuable asset for the Falcons last season. It's those injuries, though, that may keep the Falcons from bringing him back, especially if they think they have reinforcements elsewhere.
Gossett is on the chopping block simply because he would need a new contract as he, too, was on a one-year deal, but he's been an important depth piece for the Falcons in the last two seasons. It wouldn't be at all surprising if the Falcons cut him a deal to stay in Atlanta.
The biggest question mark in this group is McGary. In fact, his future is the biggest question mark when looking at the entire group of offensive linemen in Atlanta.
McGary saw an exponential jump in play, production and overall offensive grades in 2022. Unlike his fellow 2019 first round draft pick Lindstrom, the Falcons did not extend McGary's fifth year option to him last offseason. But that doesn't discount a potential new deal to be enacted for McGary to stay in Atlanta. His play in 2022 warrants a good second contract. Will the Falcons be the ones to give him one? That's where the next section begins...
Biggest offseason question: How much money are the Falcons willing to invest in the offensive line? Does said money equate to being able to keep this group together long-term?
There is something to be said about this 2022 offensive line in Atlanta. From the men who started every single game, to the left guards rotated in at various points during the season, this offensive line was the biggest and best surprise of 2022. Ask any of these linemen or their position coach (Dwayne Ledford) and they'll all tell you the same thing: The culture they have built in their room in two year's time has gotten them to this point of seeing consistent success.
If that's the case, could the group make an argument to stay together? The Falcons (arguably) have the money to keep them together if they choose to prioritize that path.
However, keeping this group together hinges on what happens with McGary and Lindstrom. How much money will the Falcons have to put towards those two to keep them? They're already paying Matthews well. Can they afford two new contracts on top of that at the same position?
One has to think that signing Lindstrom is a higher priority, but there's something to be said about the way Lindstrom and McGary work together. With so many needs across the team, is re-signing McGary a priority, too? If so, how do they engineer the cap to work best for them long-term?
These are the questions left for this position group to answer in the wake of a promising 2022 season.
Join us as we take a look back at our favorite photos on offense from the 2022 Atlanta Falcons season.