Thursday morning, my only worry regarding the NFL Draft was that the Atlanta Falcons would do something dumb with their first-round pick. Namely, trading up to draft Jadeveon Clowney.
I should have known that wasn’t going to happen, because the Falcons have been set on drafting an offensive linemen since Sept. 8, 2013.
It was on that afternoon, late in the first quarter of the season-opening game against the New Orleans Saints, that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan scrambled for a 12-yard gain into the Saints’ red zone, already leading 7-0. Ryan slid at the end of the run, but was still met by a cheap shot from Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro.
The Falcons were awarded a seven-yard penalty on the play, but Ryan was clearly banged-up. The Falcons only scored seven points the rest of the day, ultimately losing to their hated rival in the Superdome. None of this was shocking to Falcons fans – not the Saints playing dirty; not the Falcons’ offense stalling for three quarters; not the loss in New Orleans.
What was shocking, however, was the offensive line’s indifference about their quarterback taking a cheap shot from an opponent. In past years, Atlanta’s linemen would have been racing each other to retaliate, especially when it was a New Orleans player who committed the act.
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That’s what irritated owner Arthur Blank to the point where he was willing to discuss it publicly on local radio.
“That play really bothered me, sincerely,” Blank told Atlanta’s 680 The Fan, via ESPN.com. “It bothered me that none of our players, they all complained, but none of them went to the safety on the Saints and did anything.”
Businessmen like Blank don’t forget when they make a bad business decision. In the past, the Falcons haven’t completely neglected offensive linemen in the draft, but they’ve failed to get a “big ugly” who will protect the franchise quarterback at any cost. Even though that play happened eight months ago, I have no doubt that Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff made sure Goal No. 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft was to ensure those cheap shots never happened to Ryan again.
At least not without knowing there’d be retaliation to protect their highest-paid player.
Jake Matthews was the lineman they settled on, and I believe he’ll be the right pick for the Falcons. He comes from a long NFL bloodline, with cousins Casey and Clay Matthews already making waves in the league. Casey is the younger, lesser-proven relative, but if Jake is anything like his cousin Clay, there’s no doubt he’ll be a nasty, standout player for the Falcons.
And that’s what the Falcons need along their much-maligned offensive line: Someone who won’t accept failure and won’t allow defensive ends to get to his quarterback. It needs to be personal when an offensive lineman allows his quarterback to be sacked, and with Matthews, I believe it is.
So watch your back, Mr. Vaccaro, and choose your cheap shots carefully.