Editor's note: This story is a part of the Falcons Breakdown series, which evaluates each position group and how it will it look for next season.
The Falcons have invested heavily in the offensive line. Notice how the team name was used there, not the general manager. Terry Fontenot added third-rounder Jalen Mayfield and fourth-rounder Drew Dalman to his only draft class thus far.
A previous regime used three first-round picks, including two in 2019 and a third-rounder to help construct last season's starting offensive line.
There are some big hits in that group, including left tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom. There are question marks, however, enough to make one wonder if the Falcons must re-invest in the position group.
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That query comes after an uneven 2021 season where the offensive line made some strides but at times got overwhelmed by quality defensive fronts.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was pressured on 28 percent of his dropbacks. That's third worst in the league. The Falcons rushers averaged 2.1 yards per carry before contact, which is fourth worst in the NFL.
Both of those stats suggest pass protection and run blocking wasn't quite good enough.
Head coach Arthur Smith generally objects when stats are solely used to prove a point. He's right. They don't tell the whole story, especially when blaming one part of a larger unit for production failures
"I think we're 31st in offensive plays run. That's a team issue," Smith said. "There's everywhere you've got to get better. If you win two games and you finish fifth in passing, are you patting yourself on the back? No. Clearly, we're going to continue to improve, but it doesn't tell the whole story. There were times against really good defenses we ran the ball well. We need to do a better job sustaining drives, getting in the red zone, and scoring more points than the other team. It's pretty practical."
How much of an issue was the offensive line this season, and is a talent infusion required to improve a generally young group, all of whom remain under contract in 2022? Let's take a closer look at the front.
Primary 2021 production:
Jake Matthews: 3 sacks, 5 hits, 18 hurries allowed; PFF grades: Pass blk: 77.2; Run blk: 58.8
Jalen Mayfield: 11 sacks, 21 hits, 25 hurries allowed; PFF grades: Pass blk: 27.6; Run blk: 67.0
Matt Hennessy: 3 sacks, 1 hit, 28 hurries allowed; PFF grades: Pass blk: 50.5; Run blk: 88.9
Chris Lindstrom: 0 sacks, 8 hits, 23 hurries allowed; PFF grades: Pass blk: 65.3; Run blk: 88.2
Kaleb McGary: 9 sacks, 10 huts, 22 hurries allowed; PFF grades: Pass blk: 50.6; Run blk: 71.4
* Arthur Smith's statement that stats don't tell the whole story clearly applies to offensive linemen. These numbers don't encapsulate performance. They're meant to only add (somewhat limited) context.
Who stays: Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom, Matt Hennessy, Kaleb McGary, Jalen Mayfield, Drew Dalman
On the chopping block: Jason Spriggs, Colby Gossett, Josh Andrews, Rick Leonard
Biggest offseason question: How many faces will change in the starting lineup?
Every offensive member of the front five is under contract in 2022, creating the prospect that the Falcons could have true continuity. That's desired by offensive lines everywhere. That also doesn't mean it will happen. While left tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom are locks to retain their posts, every other spot is up in the air to some degree.
The original plan was for Jalen Mayfield to develop as an understudy but was forced into steady action. Would the Michigan product be better continuing to learn by doing to take a step back and work behind a veteran addition?
Taking over for Alex Mack is a tough task. Can't easily fill those shoes. Coaches still have to evaluate whether Hennessy's the guy moving forward, or if they can find an upgrade to help run the show.
The Falcons just drafted Kaleb McGary in the first round a few years back. Would the Falcons take another tackle high in the NFL draft? They could at least bring in competition, though upper-echelon right tackles make big bucks the Falcons probably won't want to pay this offseason. Still, though McGary was uneven again in 2021 and it's fair to wonder if an upgrade is required.
Keep the band together or create a new one. Seeing all five guys return in 2022 without stiff competition, however, seems unlikely. The Falcons must be better all-around in 2021. Adding talent, let's say a veteran center and a young right tackle, could help the front even if continuity much be re-established. Dwayne Ledford's a quality position coach and could help mold a more talented unit to control the line of scrimmage the way the Falcons struggled to last season.