January 31, 2008 should be remembered as one of the most important dates in recent Atlanta Falcons history.
What's so significant about that date?
It's the day the Falcons hired Paul Boudreau to coach their offensive line.
After two years of dismal offensive line performance, Boudreau coached the Falcons' offensive line to a level that went beyond mere respectability. He helped transform a unit that ranked dead last in Football Outsiders' "Adjusted Line Yards" (3.52 per carry) and allowed 47 quarterback sacks in 2007, to one that ranked 10th in "Adjusted Line Yards" (4.27 per carry) and allowed just 17 sacks in 2008, the 5th fewest allowed in the National Football League last year.
And this was done with two new starters on the right-side of the offensive line (Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo) and a 1st round left tackle (Sam Baker) who missed half the season with a hip injury and a concussion.
The Falcons expect to enter 2009 starting the same five offensive linemen it started 2008 with. From left-to-right, that would be Baker, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Dahl and Clabo. Veterans Alex Stepanovich and Nate Bennett, an undrafted rookie in 2008 who is already on his fourth NFL franchise, provide depth along the interior of the offensive line.
Atlanta lost veteran tackle Todd Weiner to retirement, and 38-year old Wayne Gandy is an unrestricted free agent, though he has expressed a desire to return to the Falcons for the 2009 season. Last week the Falcons signed veteran Will Svitek, who along with Quinn Ojinnaka and Michael Butterworth, provide depth at the tackle position. Tackles Renardo Foster and Patrick McCoy are exclusive rights free agents the team is expected to bring back for 2009.
Atlanta's top offensive line-related priority in free agency will be retaining Dahl, Clabo and reserve center Ben Wilkerson, which will be very easy to do as they're all restricted free agents. Since neither player was originally drafted by Atlanta, or anyone for that matter, tendering them at the lowest level ($1.01M) makes little sense as it wouldn't prevent another team from signing either player to an offer sheet.
Given their value to the franchise as starters, Dahl and Clabo each can expect to be tendered at the second-round level, which is worth $1.545 million dollars for 2009. This way, if another team signs either of them to an offer sheet, and Atlanta declines to match, the Falcons would be compensated with that team's second-round pick. As long as 2010 remains an uncapped year, there's not a lot of urgency to reach a long-term deal with either Dahl or Clabo, as neither will have the six seasons required for a player to become an unrestricted free agent if 2010 remains uncapped.
Potential Free Agent Offensive Line Targets
Jordan Gross, Carolina – A quick way to shift the balance of power within a division is by signing an impact player away from a division rival. The Panthers are feverishly working towards a new contract with Gross, so the chances of him actually hitting the open market are actually quite slim. If he somehow does hit free agency, though, the Falcons should pounce.
Jon Stinchcomb, New Orleans – The Georgia native and UGA alum has spent the last three seasons starting at right tackle for a New Orleans Saints offensive line that has yielded just 52 sacks in 48 games. Stinchcomb is the only starter on the Saints' offense who is headed towards unrestricted free agency, and with the Saints pressed up against the salary cap, talks to keep him off the market are presently at a standstill.
Adam Goldberg, St. Louis – Goldberg wouldn't be an upgrade over Clabo at right tackle, but he does bring size, experience and versatility to the table. He's also got 27 NFL starts under his belt, including 4 starts for the St. Louis Rams in 2006-07 when Boudreau was their offensive line coach.
Russ Hochstein, New England – With Blalock, McClure and Dahl, the interior of the Falcons' line is in good shape, but Hochstein could add much-needed depth. Hochstein has starting experience at center and started 8 games at right guard during New England's undefeated regular season in 2007.
Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack, Seattle – Durability has always been an issue for Womack. However, in a season where all five of the Seahawks starting offensive linemen finished the season on injured reserve, Womack would remain healthy, starting 14 games at both left and right guard and leading all Seahawks offensive players in snaps. Womack has roots in the southeastern United States and experience with zone blocking schemes.
Brian McIntyre lives in the Boston area. In addition to writing for FalconInsider.com, Brian maintains his own blog (www.macsfootballblog.com) and charts games for Football Outsiders. If you'd like to e-mail Brian, you may do so here.
Falcons Free Agent Targets: Offensive Line
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