With reports now coming out that the NFL lockout could be effectively over as soon as July 21, I can honestly say that this latest news has left me the most excited in a long time. Sure, we've been hearing this all offseason long, but I have a good feeling about this latest batch of reports, if only for the fact that they can squeeze in free agency without missing any games.
That said, the Falcons will have alot of work to do when free agency does arrive, and like every other team they'll be scrambling to re-sign current players and acquire some new ones too. But for a team that posted a 13-3 record last season, the top priority should be retaining players who could walk away as unrestricted FA's. The most important such position for the Falcons is undoubtedly the offensive line.
Tyson Clabo: The best of the three impending free agents, and as a result the most expensive, is Clabo. He's coming off of a Pro Bowl year, and seems the most likely to test the waters of free agency when it arrives. Should that happen, the Falcons will be left with a pretty big hole to fill at the right tackle spot.
Naturally, opinions on replacements vary. In a recent breakdown of the Falcons roster, the AJC's D Orlando Ledbetter has backup OT Will Svitek taking over for Clabo next season. Svitek has spent his career in Atlanta primarily as Sam Baker's backup, making a few spot starts here and there. However, his performance was pretty mediocre in the opportunities given. While Svitek is certainly the safest choice, he definitely won't blow anyone away as a starter.
Another option at RT is the massive Jose Valdez, who measures in at 6'6 and 324 lbs. A guy who paved the way for backs like Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas, Valdez certainly has the physical tools to be a great asset in the running game. However, he has spent most of the past two seasons on the practice squad, and it remains to be seen if he has the mental discipline to be a full-time starter in the NFL.
Finally, our friend Dave Choate over at The Falcoholic thinks that 2009 fifth-rounder Garrett Reynolds is in line to take over for Clabo, should he depart. Of the three, Reynolds seems to be the most likely and logical choice. He has spent the last two seasons on the bench learning from Clabo. He's the typical big 'ole run blocking tackle that'll pave the way for Turner in the ground game. Although Reynolds has less game experience than Svitek, he still has an equal if not better shot at the job.
Harvey Dahl: Clabo's partner in crime on the right side of the line, Dahl was voted the meanest player in the NFL a couple of years back. He worked his way up in Atlanta by being a big, nasty run blocker, the kind of guy who always plays through the whistle. Dahl seems to have a 50/50 chance to stay. He's a good guard, but the Falcons will only want to keep him for the right price.
As far as replacements go, 2009 third-round pick Mike Johnson out of Alabama seems like the clear-cut choice. Though he has very limited game experience,he was a fantastic and durable lineman at the collegiate level, and has the versatility to play at almost every position along the line. Regardless of who leaves, expect to see Johnson somewhere on the line in 2011.
Two other possibilities include sixth round pick Andrew Jackson, and second year lineman Joe Hawley, but both are long shots to win the job. Hawley is much more likely to serve as longtime vet Todd McClure's eventual replacement.
Justin Blalock: A leftover from the previous regime, Blalock has probably been the most consistent of the three. He's not flashy, but he does his job well. In fact, many would hold that he's been chronically underrated throughout his career. I'd argue that he's the most likely to return because he is both more well-rounded than Dahl and also should be easier to retain. Still, if he leaves, his replacement would likely be Mike Johnson.
For more on the Falcons, make sure to check out The Falcoholic.