Protecting Matt Ryan with revamped line could key Falcons’ resurgence

FILE – Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan (2) runs out of the pocket against the New Orleans Saints during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Vaughn McClure
ESPN Staff Writer

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Maybe the public didn’t get to see his initial reaction, but Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan no doubt smiled with relief at some point during last week’s NFL draft.

At least that’s the impression general manager Thomas Dimitroff left when asked by ESPN if Ryan applauded the organization for drafting a pair of offensive linemen in the first round. Ryan was sacked 42 times last season, the second-highest total in his career.

“He texted me, and actually, he just said, ‘Thanks, I appreciate that a lot, wow,'” Dimitroff said of Ryan’s response.

Protecting their $150 million franchise quarterback had to be the Falcons’ top priority, no matter how many mock drafts had them targeting a defensive tackle or cornerback first. Team owner Arthur Blank hinted at the team’s draft direction when he said in a phone interview, “I think we’ve got to get younger on the offensive line” before mentioning any other position.

“Make no mistake about it: We knew what we needed to do this offseason and that was to continue to fortify that line and make sure that we were protecting Matt,” Dimitroff said. “And we weren’t going to run into what we ran into last year.”

The Falcons indeed got younger — and they believe a little nastier — with the additions of 14th overall pick Chris Lindstrom, a guard from Boston College, and 31st overall pick Kaleb McGary, a right tackle from Washington. Maybe those additions will help the Falcons regain the same type of offensive swagger they had during the 2016 Super Bowl run, when they started the same offensive line in all 16 games, led the league at 33.8 points per game, and saw Ryan win the MVP.

This latest draft was just the second time in team history the Falcons selected a pair of offensive linemen with their first two draft picks. In 2012, the Falcons picked center Pete Konz with their first selection in the second round (55th overall) then followed with tackle Lamar Holmes in the third round (91st). They didn’t have a first-round pick.

Both Konz and Holmes played just three seasons.

The Falcons would hope for longevity from both Lindstrom and McGary, even if coach Dan Quinn was hesitant to designate them as immediate starters. As ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out, a potential starting offensive line of Jake Matthews at left tackle, McGary at right tackle, James Carpenter and Lindstrom at the guard spots, and Alex Mack at center would mark the first time in the common draft era (1967) that a team would start five first-round picks along the offensive line.

Having a first-round line doesn’t matter if you can’t keep your quarterback upright. Quinn admitted having concerns about how many times Ryan got hit throughout last season, which led to plenty of shuffling along the offensive line.

The Falcons used six different starting offensive line combinations last season due either to injury or ineffectiveness. Five of those starters — Ryan Schraeder, Andy Levitre, Zane Beadles, Brandon Fusco, and Ben Garland — are no longer with the team. Schraeder, who was released, remains a free agent along with Levitre and Beadles, who are both considering retirement. Garland was signed by the San Francisco 49ers. Fusco, who had a season-ending ankle injury last season after starting seven games at guard, got released Monday.

Wes Schweitzer, another starter from last season at guard, is expected to return as backup at guard and center this season, if he remains on the roster.

According to ESPN Statistics & Information tracking, Ryan was sacked, hit while throwing or hit while running 76 times in 2018, the most in a season during his career. He didn’t miss any games but had some nicks and bruises. Ryan told ESPN he dealt with a nagging left wrist issue throughout last season and reaggravated it in the final game against Tampa Bay, though he never considered taking any plays off. It did cause him to turn down an invitation to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, but Quinn said Ryan wouldn’t be limited once the Falcons begin organized team activities.

Although Quinn continued to emphasize the need for balance in Dirk Koetter’s second stint as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, the reality is Koetter runs a pass-friendly offense that should cater to Ryan’s strength. And Koetter won’t be afraid to go down the field to Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley off play-action, provided the line gives Ryan adequate time to throw.

Having two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman from last year’s season-ending groin surgery should help the offense flow. Plus, getting bigger up front with the offensive line additions could pave the way for more downhill blocking rather than stretch plays outside.

Again, just because the Falcons drafted a pair of first-round offensive linemen and added four others as free-agents — Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Adam Gettis and John Wetzel — doesn’t mean all of their problems are solved. There will be an adjustment period for the rookies, with Lindstrom being asked to put on a little more weight for added power and McGary probably not ready for the top pass-rushers he could face early in the season, such as J.J Watt and Danielle Hunter. And there is some uncertainty about Carpenter, a respected veteran who is coming off shoulder surgery.

However the line comes together, the Falcons can’t afford to have embarrassing performances like they did against Pittsburgh last season, when Ryan was sacked six times and hit 14 times. Both Lindstrom and McGary known protecting Ryan is the top priority.

“You’re trying to establish a relationship with those guys, and you have a love for your teammates, and you don’t want to see anything happen to them — especially with the quarterback,” Lindstrom said. “Doing your job and being accountable, making sure that those guys aren’t being touched, it’s the reason why we’re here as offensive linemen.”

Said McGary, “I can’t wait to come and compete and try to contribute, hopefully, do everything I can to help make [Ryan] and whoever else feel safe. That’s a lineman’s job, and that’s all I want to do is my job.”

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