The Atlanta Falcons signed guard Brandon Fusco to a three-year contract worth $12.75 million earlier this week at the outset of free agency. With that contract, Fusco immediately leapfrogs Wes Schweitzer as the team’s prospective starting right guard this season.
The Falcons interior line play struggled at the end of the 2017 season thanks to an injury to left guard Andy Levitre forcing the team to start backup center Ben Garland for several games. Garland and Schweitzer both were continually exposed against the formidable fronts of the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles in the Falcons playoff game.
So it was understandable that the Falcons wanted to try and shore up that position by adding a player like Fusco. But now it’s time to truly examine whether or not his signing will, in fact, achieve said goal.
I went back and looked at six games of Fusco’s last year when he served as the starting right guard for the San Francisco 49ers. The six I watched were some of his best and worst based on Pro Football Focus grades. I saw his three best performances, which came against the Los Angeles Rams both in Weeks 3 and 17, as well as his Week 9 performance against the Arizona Cardinals. Three of his lowest-graded games came against the Washington Redskins (Week 6), Tennessee Titans (Week 15) and Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 16).
It was Fusco’s first and only year playing under head coach Kyle Shanahan, formerly the Falcons offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016. As such, Fusco should have no issue adapting and picking up the current Falcons offense helmed by Steve Sarkisian.
Fusco will also no doubt benefit from playing between Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Both are among the best at their positions, and as such should make whoever plays right guard’s job much easier.
Let’s get started by looking at Fusco’s abilities in pass protection, as he’ll be charged with protecting the soon-to-be wealthier quarterback Matt Ryan.
Pass protection was an area that Fusco routinely struggled with during his six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He was among the league’s lowest-graded guards in pass protection per PFF in 2015 and 2016, his final two seasons in Minnesota.
Watching Fusco’s 2017 film, you still see some of those same issues at staying in front of quality pass-rushers. Many of Fusco’s issues in pass protection stem from the fact that he doesn’t do a consistent job initiating contact with a defender.
Typically in the NFL, it only takes two to three seconds between the time the ball is snapped and the quarterback throws the football. That means that engagements between offensive and defensive linemen can be quick and decisive, leading to the player that initiates said engagement to have a decided advantage in determining how it will go.
This is why it’s important that a player like Fusco do a better job initiating these engagements, particularly given how with the Falcons in 2018, Fusco will face no shortage of prolific pass-rushing defensive tackles. Fletcher Cox, Geno Atkins, Kawann Short, Gerald McCoy, David Irving, Mike Daniels and now possibly Ndamukong Suh are just a few of the names that he could be set to square up against given the Falcons’ schedule.
But let’s start with the positives for Fusco and show some examples of times when he does do the right thing in pass protection.
Fusco has enough athleticism to hang with quality defensive tackles as he showed at times in matchups against the likes of Aaron Donald and Matt Ioannidis last season. The latter gave him a fair share of struggles in their Week 6 matchup, but there were examples of when Fusco did things right with clean footwork and a good punch, he was able to stonewall the young Redskins pass-rusher.
One of the reasons that likely attracted the Falcons to Fusco this offseason was the fact that he held his own against Aaron Donald in their lone matchup this season during Week 3. Fusco didn’t face off against Donald all that much early in the game. But during the fourth quarter, as the 49ers attempted to make a comeback against the Rams, the two players got a number of one-on-one matchups. Here are some examples of some very good reps going against Donald:
The Falcons hope that Fusco’s experience with being able to contain Donald will benefit them should they face the Rams again next January.
However, not all of Fusco’s reps against Donald went in his favor. Donald was able to beat Fusco on what amounted to the game-sealing sack late in the fourth quarter:
You can also see Fusco’s issues against other quality pass-rushers like Jurrell Casey in the 49ers matchup against the Titans:
It’s not just inside counters that Fusco struggles with, as he can get beat with pure power:
Fusco often liked to jump set players, which can be advantageous for blockers with initiating the engagement with a defensive lineman before the latter is ready. Here’s a good example of Fusco doing so against the Rams in Week 17:
But here’s an example where he tries this against Ioannidis against the Redskins and fails. The only reason why this doesn’t result in a sack is mostly due to Fusco getting away with holding Ioannidis after he gets beat.
But generally speaking, Fusco’s jump sets work out in his favor, particularly when he isn’t facing quality rushers like Ioannidis.
Another area that I thought Fusco consistently did a good job in was adjusting to stunts, particularly tackle-end (T-E) stunts. This was an area in particular that I thought Schweitzer declined in during the course of the 2017 season.
Now that you have been painted a portrait of Fusco’s strengths and weaknesses in pass protection, let’s move on to examining how he functions as a run blocker.
A big part of the outside zone scheme that Shanahan implemented both in Atlanta and San Francisco, is the need to make reach blocks on stretch plays to the outside, the bread-and-butter run play of the blocking scheme.
Fusco is capable of this, but it’s not necessarily something he excels at. Let’s look at some positive examples:
While Fusco wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a classic “road grader” when it comes to his run-blocking abilities, there are notable examples when he does look the part. Here’s one against the Rams.
But it’s not all good with Fusco when it comes to the ground game.
And once again Fusco shows up on Jurrell Casey’s highlight reel:
But most of Fusco’s inconsistencies and struggles in the ground game came when he was asked to climb to the second level to take out linebackers and defensive backs. Fusco is a decent athlete, but by no means a premier one.
Former Falcons starting right guard Chris Chester was a dynamic athlete for the position, given his past as a tight end at Oklahoma. This made Chester particularly adept at locating and destroying defenders on the second level like a heat-seeking missile. This led to a number of big gains for the Falcons in 2016.
However, with Schweitzer taking over in 2017, this second-level blocking ability became a lot more problematic and the Falcons ground game suffered somewhat.
Fusco is much more reminiscent of Schweitzer than Chester in this regard. However, the hope is that with added experience in playing in the outside zone scheme, Fusco can be a bit more consistent this year than he was a year ago.
Let’s start with a few good examples of when Fusco hits those second-level assignments:
Here’s another example from the same game:
It’s mostly less rangy linebackers like Dansby that Fusco is able to track down and take out on the second level. Here are some examples of faster linebackers being able to beat him in their pursuit of the ball:
Another example of Fusco’s inability to make quick adjustments in space:
But there are examples where Fusco does catch athletic linebackers like Jack. Hopefully, the Falcons see more plays like this in 2018:
Overall, Fusco is a solid addition to the Falcons offensive line. He’s likely an immediate upgrade over Schweitzer at right guard. The Falcons are probably hoping that Fusco can offer similar value as to what Chester did at the position from 2015 to 2016.
While he lacks the wealth of experience Chester had within the scheme and the athleticism, he should provide a lot more consistency that goes with some with a wealth of NFL starts.
Fusco can be considered a decent stopgap at the position that should be able to handle the starting gig competently for at least the next two seasons. That buys the Falcons more time to continue to develop Schweitzer as well as 2017 fourth-round pick Sean Harlow. It also gives them two more offseasons to potentially add another developmental starter via the draft without being forced to start him immediately.
While I doubt Fusco will go down in the annals of great Falcons blockers throughout team history, he should be a perfectly capable starter that should provide a small but substantial boost to the Falcons offensive line in 2018 and beyond.
Final 53-Man Roster Projection
With one final preseason game to go for the Atlanta Falcons tomorrow, it’s time to make the last projection for which players will make the team’s 53-man roster heading into the first game of the regular season.
If you want to check out the projection I made on the eve of training camp roughly five weeks ago, click here.
There are still some unresolved roster battles that will likely play out in the Falcons matchup against the Miami Dolphins tomorrow night, but here’s my best guess for which guys will wind up taking those final spots.
An asterisk (*) indicates that tight end Alex Gray automatically qualifies as the 11th member of the Falcons practice squad due to the NFL’s International Player Program.
Keep (2): Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub
Practice Squad: Kurt Benkert
Cut: Garrett Grayson
No changes from my pre-camp projection here. While Benkert has flashed potential and will likely be kept around to potentially compete to replace Schaub as Ryan’s primary backup in 2019, his play hasn’t been quite at the level to merit keeping on the 53-man roster.
Keep (4): Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith, Ricky Ortiz
Practice Squad: Justin Crawford
Cut: Terrence Magee, Malik Williams, Jalston Fowler
The on.y change over the last five weeks is swapping Crawford in for Williams as the team’s choice for the practice squad. Crawford’s steady work on special teams and being the first back off the bench once Coleman and Smith have exited makes him the obvious candidate to remain on the practice squad.
Fowler could make a late push to unseat Ortiz at fullback, but it might be too little, too late for him.
Keep (6): Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Justin Hardy, Russell Gage, Marvin Hall
Practice Squad: Reggie Davis
Cut: Dontez Byrd, Christian Blake, Julian Williams, Devin Gray, Lamar Jordan
Previously I had Byrd making it as the team’s practice-squad receiver, but I’ll swap him out for Davis, who still has an outside shot of making the roster if he can make waves in the return game tomorrow night. However, the fact that Davis has regularly gotten work on special teams, while few of the undrafted guys have so far this summer, makes me believe he’s a strong candidate to land on the practice squad. That is, assuming he clears waivers, which he did not a year ago when the Falcons cut him after camp.
Of the remaining guys that might have a shot at landing a practice squad spot, keep an eye on Byrd and Gray, the two players that have been the most consistent playmakers on offense throughout the preseason.
Keep (3): Austin Hooper, Logan Paulsen, Eric Saubert
Practice Squad: Troy Mangen, Alex Gray*
Cut: Jaeden Graham
No changes here. Unfortunately, the competition for the backup tight end position between Paulsen and Saubert never really came to fruition. Paulsen will be Hooper’s backup and used primarily as a blocker. Hopefully, as the season wears on, Saubert will garner more snaps and be more than an afterthought as the No. 3 tight end, like he was for much of his 2017 rookie season.
Keep (10): Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Brandon Fusco, Ryan Schraeder, Wes Schweitzer, Ben Garland, Ty Sambrailo, Matt Gono, Sean Harlow
Practice Squad: Jamil Douglas
Cut: Austin Pasztor, Daniel Brunskill, J.C. Hassenauer, Salesi Uhatefe
The majority of the changes from my pre-camp projection occur among this group. Previously, nine blockers had been projected to make the team, but I had to add a tenth in Gono, given his solid and promising upside being on display each week this preseason. I also had to swap in Sambrailo for Pasztor as the team’s swing tackle, given that the former has been the more consistent of the pair and has steadily worked ahead of the other with the second-stringers.
Douglas, who has worked consistently with the second-unit line, should be able to land a practice squad spot for the second year in a row, given his versatility to play both center and guard. Hassenauer is another possible candidate to land a spot on the practice squad as well.
Keep (9): Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley, Grady Jarrett, Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford, Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby, Deadrin Senat, Garrison Smith
Practice Squad: Justin Zimmer, Anthony Winbush
Cut: J.T. Jones, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Mackendy Cheridor
More changes among this group, with Zimmer and Winbush earning practice squad spots. In my pre-camp projection, Winbush was listed among the linebackers as a practice squad player.
Zimmer’s steady pass-rushing ability likely prompts him to land a spot on the practice squad, while Garrison Smith likely sticks on the roster. But those players could easily flip-flop.
Keep (6): Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Duke Riley, Kemal Ishmael, Foye Oluokun, Jonathan Celestin
Practice Squad: Richard Jarvis
Cut: Emmanuel Ellerbee, Emmanuel Smith
Celestin, despite being a late addition during camp, managed to outplay the others thanks to sure tackling, solid instincts and pass-rushing capabilities.
There’s also a possibility that the Falcons put Celestin on the practice squad and add a veteran outside linebacker off the waiver wire, similar to what they did a year ago when they added Jordan Tripp.
As is, there is no clear-cut backup to Campbell at strong-side linebacker beyond Ishmael and Jarvis, and the Falcons may want to shore up their depth a little with someone that can also bolster special teams.
Keep (6): Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Brian Poole, Isaiah Oliver, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Justin Bethel
Practice Squad: Chris Lammons, Ryan Neal
Cut: Leon McFadden, Deante Burton
Poole won the battle for the nickel/third cornerback hands down over Oliver. The Falcons also saw steady play from Wreh-Wilson to make him safe despite entering the summer a bit on the bubble.
Lammons was listed as a safety but spent the entire summer playing slot cornerback. His ability to potentially play both spots makes him a good bet to land a practice squad spot. Neal is also a candidate to land a practice squad spot, given his time split playing both outside cornerback and strong safety this summer.
Keep (4): Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee, Ron Parker
Practice Squad: None
Cut: Tyson Graham, Marcelis Branch, Secdrick Cooper
While there was never any question whether or not he was a roster lock, it’s worth noting how well Kazee played this summer just because.
Parker sticks as the fourth safety, which was never in any real doubt given how poorly the rest of the team’s reserve safeties played this summer. So much so that the Falcons were able to move outside cornerback Ryan Neal to the spot against Jacksonville, and he looked a lot more promising than the likes of Graham, Branch or Cooper.
Keep (3): Matt Bryant, Matt Bosher, Josh Harris
Practice Squad: None
Cut: Giorgio Tavecchio, David Marvin
No surprises here as Tavecchio and Marvin are essentially bodies to get the Falcons through the final preseason game rather than real contenders for roster spots.
That is the final 53-man projection for me. There were only a handful of changes from July on who I thought would make the roster, but several in terms of which players wind up with practice squad spots.
The Importance of O-Line Stability
Aaron breaks down some interesting stats looking offensive line stability and its correlation to past Falcons success. He first discusses the signing of K Giorgio Tavecchio, followed by looking back at how the Falcons featuring the same five starters along their O-line has correlated highly to past team success. He turns his attention to the importance of OL depth in 2018, discusses why it’s important to keep Sean Harlow, and reads iTunes reviews from listeners.
Rapid Reaction to Preseason Week 3 Loss to Jaguars
Aaron reacts to the Falcons 17-6 loss to the Jaguars in the third “dress rehearsal” preseason game. He discusses the struggles of the starting offense, the lack of opportunities for Ito Smith, the importance of winning in the trenches, depth in the secondary and the lack of movement for roster battles on special teams.