There are a few starting jobs up for grabs on the Falcons' offensive line this year, but what isn't really known is how this year's line will fill the void of leadership left behind by former starters Tyson Clabo and Todd McClure. Combined, they offered more than 15 years of NFL experience to the younger players in the offensive line meeting room but this season the Falcons are going with a younger front five to protect quarterback Matt Ryan and leaders will need to step forward.
Working in most of the players on this year's line's favor is they played with McClure and Clabo during their Falcons careers. No one expects to replace that much experience, but the men in the offensive line room this year can take what they learned and move forward with the same mentoring they received.
"The great thing about it is the guys that were in that room with them learned a lot," Falcons offensive line coach Pat Hill said. "So now it's their turn to verbalize it. I think it's good. There are a lot of new voices and a lot of new things that are going on. They'll reach back to what they heard before and what they've been taught."
Hill said the changing of the leadership guard is like any other company structure. Younger executives are groomed for the top jobs by the current leaders. Eventually those young employees will become the leaders and the same is true for the Falcons this year.
Sam Baker and Justin Blalock are the current longest-tenured starters on the line. Baker brings five years of experience and Blalock has six consecutive years of 14 starts or more. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has spent a number of draft picks in recent years addressing the O-line and this year will continue to show those players earning a chance to lead on and off the field.
Garrett Reynolds, who appears to be the front-runner for the right guard position, Joe Hawley, competing at center, and Mike Johnson, competing at right tackle, all are in position to help the Falcons this year and they're all products of Dimitroff drafts.
"We've had some good drafts the last few years," Johnson said recently. "We're kind of ready to get our shot at things."
McClure and Clabo were big personalities for the Falcons and helped create a tight-knit culture among the linemen. That culture appears to be well in-tact and one of the O-line trademarks — coming out of the practice field locker room as practice begins animatedly boisterous — continues on this year.
One of the focuses Hill has tried to instill in each of his players this year with the absence of their previous leadership has been personal leadership. Hill said his players are leading themselves and making sure to be prepared each day and the rest will fall into place.
Ryan, whose investment in the ability of the offensive line is as high as anyone's, recently singled out second-year center Peter Konz as one of the player’s he’s seen emerging as a leader and a player stepping into a role that requires significant detail.
The influence of Clabo and McClure is still there in personality. The offensive line is as fun and free-spirited as always, but this year they're taking what they've learned in the past and adding their own personality to create a new dynamic.
Watching and learning from previous players has been a valuable experience for players like Johnson, and this season they're adjusting and forging a new path.
"We've tried to fill in as best we can for the vacancy he left," Johnson said. "It's just one of those things where you have to come out each day and kind of adjust to it. We've got some good guys in our room so I think we've adjusted well so far."