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Tag:Justin Blalock
Posted on: January 23, 2010 9:05 pm
Edited on: March 22, 2010 9:13 pm
 

Tracking the draft picks, part three

Recap:  a draft pick is an asset in itself.  Each team gets seven of them per year (leaving out the compensatory picks, at least for now).

If you draft players that don't stick with the team, you have more holes to fill.  You end up using picks year after year just to replace the same spots on the roster instead of improving the team.

But if you end up trading the players or receiving compensatory draft picks when they leave via free agency, you have extended the "life" of those picks.  They might not be in the form of the same players, but you still have assets to show for them.  That can be as good (and sometimes better) than re-signing the same players you initially drafted.




A prime Falcons example is the 2004 draft.  I claim that three of the top five drafts in franchise history came in the last decade - and oddly enough, each of our three GMs of the decade had one.

Dan Reeves (counting him as a GM since he had full control over personnel as well as head coaching duties) had the 2001 draft.  Thomas Dimitroff had the 2008 class, which may be remembered as the best draft in Falcons history.

And in between, Rich McKay had the forgotten gem of 2004.

Surprised to hear that draft called a "gem"?  Well, first look at the players selected:  DeAngelo Hall, Michael Jenkins, Matt Schaub, and Demorrio Williams.  That's a two-time Pro Bowl defensive back, a starting wide receiver, a franchise quarterback, and a starting linebacker.  Four starters out of seven picks is an *outstanding* draft class.  

Go back through the annals of Falcons history and count how many of our draft classes produced even three guys who were still starting in the NFL after six seasons.  It's an extreme rarity, at least for Atlanta.  For that matter, it doesn't happen all that often for any team.  Kudos to the scouting department for that one - it really was one of the best drafts the Falcons had ever had.

But the press is quick to dismiss that draft, sometimes even calling it a failure since Jenkins was the only player from that group still with the team heading into the 2008 season.

Not so fast, kemo sabe...   The Falcons have a whole lot more to show for that draft class than just our #2 receiver.

DeAngelo had his famous argument with Petrino in the Panthers game in 2007 and demanded a trade rather than play for yet another rookie coach in 2008.  Ultimately, new GM Dimitroff granted him his wish and dealt him to the Raiders for a pair of draft picks.  (Be careful what you wish for, DeAngelo - you might just get it...) 

The picks received were a second rounder in 2008 and a fifth rounder in 2009.  Thank you ever so kindly, Mr. Davis.  It was a pleasure doing business with you. 

And many fans believe the Falcons made a big mistake trading Matt Schaub.  It's hard to blame them, especially considering how things went in the summer of 2007.  But the part of that story that gets left out is that Schaub was already a restricted free agent, and Arthur Blank's nine figure contract extension to Michael Vick made it clear that Schaub's intended role was purely as a backup.  In other words, Schaub was already as good as gone the moment the 2006 season ended. 

The Falcons offered him a high tender in order to talk trade and control the picks they received.  While they didn't get the highest possible RFA bounty (a first and a third rounder), the Falcons did get two first day draft picks from the Texans - a second rounder in 2007 and another second rounder in 2008.

That 2007 second rounder from Schaub became starting left guard Justin Blalock.

The 2008 second rounders for Hall and Schaub were the second rounders that Atlanta sent in a draft day deal to the Redskins

ESPN reported that the Falcons gave Washington three picks to move up to #21 to take Sam Baker.  Atlanta fans were horrified by the one-sided nature of the trade, leading Dimitroff to go out of his way that night to clear the air and make sure the local media understood that those initial reports were incorrect.  It was NOT a three for one deal.  It was three picks for three picks, allowing the Redskins to move up with two picks while Atlanta moved up with one.

The actual trade bumped the #34 (from the Raiders for Hall) up to #21, landing Baker.  The #48 (from the Texans for Schaub) dropped to #84, with Atlanta taking Harry Douglas.  The other part was that the fourth round pick moved down to the fifth.  I doubt many fans would object - that pick became Kroy Biermann.

And the following year, the Cowboys traded up in the fifth round. (Jerry Jones making trades on draft day?  Big shock, I know.)  Dallas gave us an extra seventh rounder to move down 13 spots.  They acquired our DeAngelo Hall pick and used it to draft DeAngelo Smith.  Atlanta used the picks from Dallas to take Garrett Reynolds in the fifth and Vance Walker in the seventh.

The bottom line... sure, DeAngelo Hall and Matt Schaub are now elsewhere. 

But their draft picks ultimately became left tackle Sam Baker, left guard Justin Blalock, slot receiver/return man Harry Douglas, offensive tackle Garrett Reynolds and defensive tackle Vance Walker.  Add in starting wide receiver Michael Jenkins, and the Falcons head into 2010 with six players on the roster that resulted from the picks of the 2004 draft.  




Posted on: January 14, 2010 6:39 pm
Edited on: January 14, 2010 6:45 pm
 

Following up on the Dirty (Bird) Dozen

Quick recap... whenever you have a turnover in coaching staff, you also tend to have a larger than usual turnover in the roster, as players who were brought in for the previous staff might not fit the schemes of the new staff.

The Falcons went through that turnover in 2007 when Bobby Petrino jettisoned a significant number of Jim Mora's players and faced a repeat in 2008.  You can't move forward, build and improve if you're having to constantly patch holes and replace large chunks of your team.

I put together a list of 12 players from the previous three drafts that I felt would be a litmus test for the new regime.  If the coaching staff kept most of these players and they continued to develop, the Falcons would be in far better shape than the media imagined. 

But if most of them failed to make the roster or tanked during the year, there would simply be too many holes to fill and we'd be in for another awful season.  I pegged 8 players as the make or break point - 8 hits meant a good year, while 8 misses would be a disaster.


Here's the list, whether they hit or missed in 2008, and also how they stand after 2009:



1. Jamaal Anderson (1st round, 2007).  2008 result:  MISS.  Not much explanation needed.  While he did all the dirty jobs the coaching staff asked of him and won praise from Smitty and from John Abraham, he was still too young and too inexperienced to matter at all at DE.

How he stands now:  if the team adds one more solid DE prospect or free agent, he'll probably be in competition with Chauncey Davis just to hang on to a backup roster spot.



2. Jonathan Babineaux (2nd round, 2005).  2008 result:  HIT. His stats weren't quite as good as 2007, but he stepped up and became a full time starter and never missed a game in spite of playing much of the season banged up. 

How he stands now:  he was hands down our best defensive lineman in 2009, but he's facing a near-certain suspension of at least four weeks in 2010, and possibly longer. 



3. Martrez Milner (4th round, 2007).  Other than Jamaal, this was the pick that had me screaming at the TV during that draft.  He may have fit Petrino's mold, but he was far from the best TE on the board at the time. 

2008 result:  MISS.  He fell out of favor with the new coaching staff over the summer and was quickly released. 



4. Jerious Norwood (3rd round, 2006).  2008 result:  HIT.  As the #2 running back, he had 828 yards from scrimmage and also became the team's kick returner.  Can't ask for better than that. 

How he stands now:  he stands to be a restricted free agent, but he'll become a true free agent if the union gives in and we get a new CBA before March 5.  The coaching staff still likes his ability, but he's losing favor with fans over his lack of durability.  (My take: keep him, but note that we really need five RB/FBs on the roster rather than just four.)



5. Justin Blalock (2nd round, 2007).  Was made an instant starter by the previous coaching staff but struggled as a rookie without a consistent partner at tackle. 

2008 result: HIT. He held onto his starting position, and the line allowed just 17 sacks while driving the league's second ranked rushing attack. No problems there. 

How he stands now:  nobody seems to be eager to move him or replace him anymore.  He's getting it done - and still getting better.  (It helps that he's finally learned how to pick up a stunt.)



6. Laurent Robinson (3rd round, 2007).  2008 result:  MISS.  He got banged up in preseason, and the time on the sidelines didn't help.  He lasted only five quarters before he tweaked his hamstring, tried to return too soon and hurt it again to end his season.  (We got an eerie sense of deja vu watching William Moore in 2009.  Hopefully things will work out better with Moore in 2010.) 

How he stands now:  we gave him away to the Rams.  He became their leading receiver before getting hurt again this year.  They'll love him in St. Louis, if they can keep him on the field.



7. Chris Houston (2nd round plus extra pick used in trade, 2007).  2008 result:  HIT.  He became a full starter and played well enough to make us forget about DeAngelo Hall

How he stands now:  he didn't progress well in 2009 and may have lost his starting job.  With only one season remaining on his contract anyway, he's facing a make or break year - if he's on the roster at all.



8. Quinn Ojinnaka (5th round, 2006).  2008 result:  HIT.  He didn't start, but he was solid as a backup.  He demonstrated that he could play all five positions on the line if needed and did well when called to fill in at left tackle when both Sam Baker and Todd Weiner were banged up. 

How he stands now:  another player caught in the CBA trap. It will be interesting to see if he still fits into Smitty's long term plans. He's best at tackle, but this season Atlanta added two more tackles (Will Svitek and Garrett Reynolds) and used Ojinnaka at guard.  If Atlanta picks up another interior lineman, The Mighty Quinn might soon be the tenth player in a nine man unit.




9. Jimmy Williams (2nd round plus extra pick used in trade, 2006).  I almost left him off the list since he fell out of the team's plans even in 2007, but with two draft picks tied up in him, he was too significant an investment to ignore. 

2008 result:  MISS.  He showed up overweight for minicamp and was a "message" cut even before training camp began.




10. Chauncey Davis (4th round, 2005).  2008 result:  HIT.  He had 38 total tackles and 4 sacks as a backup, earning a nice new contract and stirring up talk that he should be starting ahead of Jamaal. 

How he stands now:  in jeopardy.  He didn't live up to that fat new contract, failing to beat out Jamaal for the starting job and putting up disappointing numbers this year.  Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are strong threats to move ahead of him on the depth chart.  If the coaching staff makes another "message" cut this year (like Williams in 2008 or Kindal Moorehead and Simon Fraser in 2009), he and/or Jamaal may be the sacrificial lambs.



11. Adam Jennings (6th round, 2006).  He almost got left off the list since a sixth round pick isn't all that much of an investment.  But Petrino wanted to clear a roster spot, making Jennings the return man and ditching Allen Rossum.  That raised the stakes a bit. 

2008 result:  MISS.  It's a shame that the final straw came on an awful call by the refs, but he wasn't getting it done as a return man.  He still had potential as a backup WR - he had six receptions in two games with Chris Redman at QB late in 2007, with a 10+ yard per catch average.  But like Laurent Robinson, he didn't fit the mold of the current staff, so sooner or later he probably would have been shown the door anyway.



12.  Stephen Nicholas (4th round, 2007).  2008 result:  HIT.  He was projected as a starter even in 2008, but that changed when the coaching staff decided to move Keith Brooking back to the weak side.  That limited his role to special teams, but he played well and continued his development, which gave the coaches full confidence to use him this season. 

How he stands now:  a starter and an emerging player with good sideline to sideline range. 




That's seven hits and five misses out of the dozen.  It didn't quite reach my goal of eight hits, but several undrafted players (particularly Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, followed by Brent Grimes and seventh rounder Jason Snelling in 2009) plus the large 2008 draft class gave the team a boost. 

Even now, enough of that young 2007 roster remains with the team that Dimitroff can now use free agency and draft picks purely to build for the future and to upgrade an already strong lineup.  With Brian Williams as the only starter becoming an unrestricted free agent without a new CBA, the Falcons have zero true holes to fill.

It's going to be a fun offseason...




Posted on: June 14, 2009 2:13 pm
 

miscellaneous notes - 6/14/09

This is without a doubt the most dull period of the football year.  That's why the media has been going on endlessly about a particular felon.  I think they KNOW we're tired of hearing about him, but there's absolutely nothing else going on right now.

But I'll try...  here's a quick roundup for everyone who's way beyond "get over it already" on the never-ending saga of our ex-QB...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This coming week is the end of OTAs.  After that, the NFL rookie symposium is at the end of the month, and training camps start in mid to late July.  Atlanta's camp will be one of the last to get underway -  officially starting August 1 with two weeks of fury before the first exhibition game. 

It's the number of practice sessions that is limited by league rules, not the number of days of camp.  So the team isn't necessarily cutting itself short by waiting until August to get it going.  They are still allowed to have one more minicamp before training camp begins.  Some other teams have held the extra minicamp, and others have skipped it.  Smitty scheduled it last year but elected to cancel it and give players some extra rest before the real camp.  This year the Falcons haven't even scheduled it. 



OTAs are officially non-contact, but things can - and do - get a bit "chippy".  Smitty ended Wednesday's practice early after a THIRD fight broke out in just that one practice session.  Here's the news flash:  Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl were NOT the ones starting any of the scuffles. 



The word so far is that the young WR prospects are all doing fairly well, but that the "real" tests will come in the contact drills in training camp.  Khalil Jones has been fighting a strained quad, but he's expected to be fine when camp opens. 

For the WRs and all the other rookies and young prospects, the main point of OTAs is to help them transition from minicamp to training camp.  In minicamp, the schemes and formations were thrown at them in a flurry, and the coaches fully expected the rookies to be overwhelmed by it all.  OTAs are kind of a mini-minicamp.  Instead of two practice sessions a day, it's three practices a week.  They're repeating the basic drills from minicamp so that the kids can get the routine down.  Instead of having their minds on things like getting lined up in the right place, they're starting to focus on what their basic responsibilities are in a football sense -  for this particular formation, here are your basic reads, and this is your assignment, etc.  The goal is for them at least to know the program so they can keep up with the veterans in training camp and get the most out of it.



The pre-season magazines are starting to hit the newsstands.  Pro Football Weekly's magazine now has the Yahoo Sports name on the cover.  Both PFW and Lindy's project the Panthers to win the division, followed by the Falcons and Saints in a tie (one of them projects a 9-7 record for both teams) with the Buccaneers in the basement. 

Both magazines have the standard inch-deep analysis that frankly makes them not worth buying.   I'll save you the fifteen bucks and give you the thought process that goes into those rankings:  Carolina won the division and is still a good team, so put them in first.  Atlanta made the wild card, and "everybody knows" the Saints were supposed to win the division but were ravaged by injuries.  Tampa has a new coach, so obviously they have to be in disarray and will automatically be in last place.

Oh, and if you're wondering what great insights the preview mags have to say about the Falcons...    Matt Ryan is a fine young quarterback.  Michael Turner is a powerhouse.  Roddy White has emerged as a true #1 receiver.  The offensive line is coming together.  Tony Gonzalez is a heck of an addition.  There are some questions on defense with so many new players taking on starting jobs.  The Falcons focused on defense in the draft.  The special teams unit and the coaching staff are pretty good.




Back to the defense...  Alvin Reynolds is working to cross train the DBs, especially the projected backups.  In particular, the cornerbacks have been getting work at the safety spot.  Keep in mind that a goal of our cover two system is to end up with "interchangeable" safeties.  Instead of a strong safety and free safety, you basically have a left side guy and a right side guy.  With that in mind, guys like Von Hutchins, David Irons, and William Middleton might fit into Atlanta's plans at safety as much or more than at corner.

The most interesting one of the bunch will be Von Hutchins.  He was signed to be our nickel corner last year and give our secondary a little extra experience.  He had just become a starter for the Texans the season before, and has a total of 16 career starts.  That's not much, but heading into camp last summer our entire CB group had a grand total of 11 career starts - all by Chris Houston.  But now Houston has 28 total starts, Chevis Jackson has 17 games as the nickel back, and even Brent Grimes has 6 starts plus 2 games as the nickel. 

But here's the kicker...  half of Hutchins' career starts were at safety rather than at corner.  If the Falcons do end up choosing to use him as a safety, he has more game experience at the position than either Jamaal Fudge or Antoine Harris.  A safety unit of Erik Coleman, William Moore, Von Hutchins, and Thomas DeCoud has an interesting sound to it...




I've repeatedly said Jamaal Anderson is too young to give up on him so soon.  There's no doubt that drafting a 21-year old kid with only one season of experience at his position at #8 was a questionable move.  But to want to declare him a total bust and get him off the roster is equally questionable.  If you weren't aware of just how young he his, here's an amusing twist -  Jamaal Anderson and this year's fourth round DE pick Lawrence Sidbury were born on the same day.



The other youngster at DE, Kroy Biermann, has bulked up since training camp last year.  I suspect that those of you who regularly go to practices during training camp will notice the difference.  A few other defensive guys who have been noticed in OTAs...  Jason Jefferson has stepped it up a bit.  He knows that with Trey Lewis returning and Vance Walker getting drafted on top of Peria Jerry, he's on the bubble.  He's working his tail off to hang on to his roster spot.  Another DT stepping up is prospect Thomas Johnson, one of the players signed to a futures contract in early January. 



On the offensive line, all of last year's starters are projected to start again this season.  The consistency will help, as four of the five are still younger, developing players.  As a rookie in 2007, Justin Blalock seemed to have a different LT to work with every week (Gandy, Renardo Foster, Weiner, Terrance Pennington in practice, and finally Quinn Ojinnaka).  He went into last year with a season behind him and worked with Sam Baker plus stints with Weiner and Ojinnaka.  If Baker can stay healthy this year, the extra experience will help Blalock as much as Baker.



The backup OL competition got a bit more interesting at the end of May.  Quinn Ojinnaka was arrested on a domestic charge similar to the situation behind Michael Boley's arrest last year.  He's the most versatile offensive lineman on the roster - he can play all five positions if needed, and he has as much game experience at LT as anyone on the team.  But legal troubles are a taboo in the organization now, and the players with off field issues have tended to vanish from the roster.  



I hit this before in a response on another thread...   like many teams, the Falcons offset the lower offseason roster limit (80 players as of 2008, as opposed to 90 players plus exemptions for NFL Europe guys in 2007) by taking advantage of the fact that draft picks don't count towards the roster limit until they sign.  The team will have to release at least two players between now and the end of July.  Those players will almost certainly be prospects rather than established players.  Or to put it another way, if you know their names, they're probably safe. 

And it's possible that the early cuts will be brought back for another look later on.  That happened last year too.  It's not that the players have necessarily washed out, but simply that the new 80-man limit won't allow the Falcons to bring everyone to camp at once. 


Posted on: December 21, 2008 7:53 am
 

The OTHER Falcon memory of Minnesota

The classic meeting was of course the NFC Championship ten seasons ago, but the last time Atlanta played Minnesota was in week 1 of last season...  the debut of Bobby Petrino as Falcon head coach.

Our alleged offensive genius had known for most of the summer that he'd be without a particular left-handed QB at least for the first four weeks of the season, yet Coach Booby never altered his protection schemes. 

With a left-hander taking the snaps, the blind side would have been in the hands of Todd Weiner and Kynan Forney, two veterans with considerable pass blocking skills.  But with a right handed QB, blind side protection fell upon a first game rookie at left guard and the oldest man on the roster at left tackle.

Minnesota had a field day, logging SIX sacks on the way to an easy win.  (But don't get big heads, Viking fans.  The Jaguars outdid you the very next week, racking up SEVEN sacks.) 

But the overhaul of Atlanta's front line was well underway even then, and a lot of good young prospects got valuable playing experience during the horror show of 2007.  It's paying off this season, as the Falcon O-line is deeper than it has been in decades and is evolving into an elite unit.

The left side now features a rookie and a second year player.  The right side consists of a pair of undrafted 27-year olds that bounced around the league, went to NFL Europe and spent time on practice squads before getting their chance at full time starting positions in Atlanta this season.  Center Todd McClure is the veteran presence that holds the unit together. 

This no-name group had some communications issues early on, but they have steadily improved all season.  They have allowed only 14 sacks all season, only 7 in the last 10 games, and only 2 in the last 6 games.  They're also powering a rushing attack that is tied for the league lead in yardage.

All the media attention will be on that classic from a decade ago, but only Keith Brooking remains from that 1998 roster.   It will be interesting to see how the others, especially those on the offensive line, fare when they return to the scene of that first-week disaster from last season.

 

Posted on: October 21, 2008 4:30 pm
 

Take another look at the offensive line...

(aka Where The Previews Went Wrong, part two...)

The emergence of the young players on the Falcon offensive line has been one of my favorite topics over the last two seasons.   The overhaul of this unit has been two years in the making, and this young group has been the main beneficiary of the new coaching staff.  Last year's staff had a rookie head coach in Petrino, a rookie offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, and a rookie offensive line coach in Mike Summers.   None of them were up to NFL standards.    But this year's coaching staff has a grizzled veteran for a line coach, an experienced offensive coordinator (who understands the concept of making adjustments, unlike last year's staff), and a no-nonsense but approachable head coach.   In particular, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has been around a long time and knows what he's doing.  He inherited a roster filled with young linemen, and he has done very well with their development.  

The performance of this group might be a surprise to the national media (who don't pay much attention), but for those around Flowery Branch it really is no surprise at all.   We've known for years that Tyson Clabo was a gem who was ready to be a true starter - at either guard or tackle.   Add three-time All-American Sam Baker as a first round draft pick, a season of experience for 2007 rookie Justin Blalock, and valuable game experience for several other prospects, and it should have been pretty obvious that things were improving for this unit.

At least it was clear to us.   Yet every offseason roundup and preview declared the Falcon line to be a hopeless bunch in need of a massive overhaul and one of the team's most critical weaknesses.   That made no sense to me at all then, and obviously it doesn't ring true now.

Here's a news flash for anyone in the national media that still doesn't get it:  the Falcons have even more young prospects.  Quinn Ojinnaka played well at left tackle last season and can play any position on the line if needed.  Renardo Foster, D'Anthony Batiste, and Pat McCoy are still works in progress, but any of them might figure into the team's plans for 2009 as well.

I've written quite a bit about the young players on the Falcon roster during training camps, minicamps, and the 2007 and 2008 seasons.  A lot of those pieces are no longer available on the message board.  The one below was one of my personal favorites because it  didn't get a particularly favorable response at the time.   The "general consensus" was that the line is horrible, so anyone who says otherwise must be wrong.  (The odd thing about that:  I don't remember seeing the so-called general consensus at minicamp or training camp.)  

A few Falcon die-hards agreed, but most readers simply wondered what flavor of Kool-Aid you'd have to drink to think the line was remotely close to competent. 

Of course, I didn't have it pegged completely either.  Forney was released rather than traded.  McClure bulked up a little more and had no trouble hanging on to his starting job.   Foster is still out, though he'll be coming off the PUP list this week. 

And I had figured that the team would return Clabo to guard rather than keep him at right tackle.  Instead, backup tackle Harvey Dahl broke through by switching to guard and won the starting job working next to Clabo.  (Dahl was one of three prospects the Falcons picked up from other teams after the injuries started piling up.  He was taken from San Francisco's practice squad and did not appear for the Falcons at all until the season finale against Seattle.)    

That one surprised everybody -  even those of us serving up the Kool-Aid on a hillside in Flowery Branch...

Here's the piece from early April:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The pre-draft minicamp starts today.  I'll go out on a limb and say that I believe the coaches will like what they see from the younger players we have on the offensive line.

The regulars here know that I like a lot of the prospects, but for the newer folks on this board, that might be a surprise.  The popular opinion is that the Falcons have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.

It's easy to understand why from looking at last year's stats:  47 sacks allowed (2.94 per game, tied-25th in NFL, league average = 2.15), one sack allowed per 12.8 pass plays called (24th in NFL, league average = one sack per 16.46 pass plays), 95 rushing yards per game (26th), and 3.94 yards per carry (T-20th).

Yep, that's certainly a sub-par set of numbers. But take another look at the line on a game by game basis.  And here's the important part:  don't hold the poor performance of the original lineup that started the season against the up-and-coming kids who finished it.

The original starters were healthy and played the first five games.  In those games, they averaged 3.6 sacks allowed per game - which would be the worst in NFL if extended over the full season, with 9.9% of all pass calls resulting in a sack (one per 10.1 pass plays called, also worst in the NFL).

Twice they had first and goal inside the one yard line and could not pound in a short yardage run for a score.  The longest run during that stretch was a special teams play -  49 yards on a fake punt. The "real" offense averaged just 81.8 yards per game on the ground and 3.325 yards per carry -  both of which would rank 30th in the NFL if extended over the full season.  

So without a doubt, the line left a lot to be desired in the first five games under Petrino. And then the injuries started kicking in.

Over the next eight games, the younger players started getting some experience.  With Gandy hurt, Renardo Foster got his first starts - until he too got hurt.  Tyson Clabo had his first playing time at tackle as well (he played last year at guard). Rookie guard Justin Blalock added to his game total, and D'Anthony Batiste and Quinn Ojinnaka got to play the first games of their careers.

The youngsters certainly had their growing pains, but the results still beat the original starting lineup:  in that span, the team allowed 3 sacks per game (compared to 3.6 for the first five games), 3.86 yards per carry (vs 3.69), and one sack allowed per 13.8 pass calls (vs one sack per 10.1 pass calls.)

And then came the watershed moment that proved to be the breakthrough for the line:  Arkansas hired themselves a new head coach. 

For the Falcon line, the difference was night vs day.  The line (with Clabo and Ojinnaka at tackle, Batiste, Blalock and Forney splitting time at guard, and McClure at center) gave up just 1.67 sacks per game, with only 5.6% of the pass calls resulting in sacks.  On the ground, the offense averaged 4.61 yards per rushing attempt.  Compare those numbers to the league averages of 2.15 sacks per game, 6.1% of pass calls resulting in sacks, and 4.06 yards per carry. 

It's a scary thought, but Clabo, Ojinnaka, Blalock, and Batiste ended up becoming a competent NFL offensive line.  When the season began, Clabo was the only one in the group who had ever played a single NFL game - and even he had never played the tackle position.

The key here is not to panic.  Web sites tend to claim the team is in dire need of a massive overhaul on the line. That assessment is a bit out of date, because the overhaul is nearly complete.  Matt Lehr is already gone. Wayne Gandy is already gone. Kynan Forney is presumed to be in jeopardy heading into camp (a likely trade to a team that uses zone blocking).  Todd McClure faces real competition for his job. And all those hopeless backups from 2005 and 2006 are long gone. 

Yes, an upgrade or two would be nice, but at this point the Falcons could even stand pat on the line and be much improved over last year.  In all seriousness, this unit really isn't bad.  Petrino's offense with Gandy, Forney, McClure, and Blalock as a rookie was dreadful. But a potential lineup including Clabo, Stepanovich, Foster, Batiste, and the second-year Blalock is a completely different story - especially playing for coaches who have a clue. 

 

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com