MOBILE, Ala. -- In one corner of a Ladd-Peebles Stadium end zone this week, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and director of player personnel Steve Sabo stood side by side watching intently as Senior Bowl offensive and defensive line prospects collided during one-on-one drills.
The drill probably gave Dimitroff and Sabo a good sense of which draft prospects might fit their definition of toughness -- and which ones should be crossed off the list immediately. No matter how the pair evaluated the group at that particular moment, there’s no doubt addressing the trenches once again is a primary emphasis for the Falcons.
Owner Arthur Blank made that clear after he decided to retain Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn following consecutive 7-9 seasons.
"Both offensive and defensive lines, you’ll see a lot of emphasis on," Blank said regarding the team’s biggest offseason issues to address. "There’s always some other needs that will pop up in free agency or the draft, but I would say [the lines] would be my view at this point."
From an offensive line perspective, continuity might have been one of the most underrated elements from the Falcons’ Super Bowl run in 2016. The Falcons were the only team to start the same five offensive linemen for the entire ‘16 season. Since 2012, three of the eight teams that have started the same five have gone on to the Super Bowl: the 2012 49ers, the 2016 Falcons and the 2018 Rams.
"You look at how healthy we stayed as a team the entire year, and you talk specifically about the offensive line," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We had the same five starters from Game 1 all the way through the Super Bowl. That doesn’t happen, and it happened that year. I think that was a big part of the reason that we were successful. There was so much continuity there and so much trust amongst those players to have each other’s backs in tough situations."
Being in unison along the line was vital in running the outside zone scheme that was implemented by then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The offense was about attacking the edge and getting the defense running sideways, paving the way for the running backs to make quick cutbacks. Establishing the outside zone helped set up play-action to provide wide-open looks for Ryan to his receivers down the field.
"Andy and I, we were the megaphones inside to get things relayed to Jake and Ryan at the tackles because sometimes it was hard to hear Alex," the retired Chester said. "And Alex, for as good as a fundamental blocker as he was, he’s also such a great communicator and a great football mind.
"I like to think we overwhelmed teams. I think we showed teams that we were pretty good at a little bit of everything. We could be that outside zone team. That was our base. But we could also line up and run power. It was hard to defend all the stuff we could do."
Mack marveled over the line’s chemistry. It was particularly evident on the interior, with Mack, Chester and Levitre all having at least eight years of NFL experience at the time. The line helped the Falcons average a league-best 6.69 yards per play, and the run game was among the top five in the league, with an average of 120.5 yards per game.
"We had a good group of guys there, and we got better as the year went on because it was the same guys," Mack said of the line. "You had a lot of learning from each other. In the offense, you could get a lot of work and knowledge of how you want things to work and fit, and you can carry that into the next game."
Since that 2016 team, the Falcons have started a number of combinations on the offensive line -- they started three combinations in 2017, six in 2018 and five this past season. The emphasis leading into the 2019 season was rediscovering continuity, which is why the Falcons drafted right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary in the first round and signed guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown in free agency. Lindstrom broke his right foot in the season opener, but he did come back to finish the 2019 season, allowing him to especially build chemistry McGary. Brown and Carpenter didn’t perform up to expectations despite signing multiyear contracts worth $6.5 million and $5.5 million per year, respectively. Carpenter eventually was placed on injured reserve with a concussion, and Brown was benched.
The Falcons strongly considered pursuing top free-agent guard Rodger Saffold, according to a league source, but weren’t going to pay one guy $11 million per year with money budgeted to pursue two.
The Falcons enter this offseason tight against the salary cap despite a low level of concern expressed by Dimitroff and team president Rich McKay, who will now oversee Dimitroff and Quinn. It’s doubtful the Falcons will make a big splash in free agency in terms of signing an offensive or defensive lineman, but who know what type of maneuvering they could do to free up cap space.
Some wonder if the 33-year-old Mack, with a cap number of $10.55 million in 2020, might be a guy the Falcons try to save money on. A longtime evaluator at the Senior Bowl said, "The Falcons could replace Mack with a guy such as Temple center Matt Hennessy, a really good player who would be your starting center for years."
But the Falcons, who are operating essentially under an ultimatum to become contenders again or else, have to consider how valuable Mack is to the cohesiveness of the line. Lindstrom and McGary are the future on the right side. Expectations remain high for Matthews, who has four years and $49.55 million left on his deal. The left guard appears to be the biggest question mark, with Carpenter's status uncertain and youngster Matt Gono not really getting the opportunity most thought he would receive.
The Falcons haven’t had the type of free-agent success they’ve hoped for in signing guards in recent years, which puts more pressure on them to find the right draft prospects capable of becoming immediate starters. The Falcons could look in the draft at Senior Bowl prospects such as Ohio State's Jonah Jackson or LSU's Damien Lewis.