Football / Sports

Falcons draft protection for Matt Ryan in tackle Jake Matthews

?FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons' offseason toughness campaign continued in the NFL draft Thursday.

With the sixth pick, the Falcons, who struggled along the offensive line last season, selected mammoth Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, a two-time All-American and all-SEC first-team selection.

He's expected to compete for the starting right tackle position next season, after playing left tackle last season for the Aggies.

"I can play either one," Matthews said. "I'll be happy to (play where) they want me to play."

The Falcons have talked repeatedly this offseason about adding grit, ruggedness and toughness along the offensive line after quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times last season, third-most in the NFL. The Falcons also averaged 77.9 yards rushing per game in 2013, last in the NFL.

"I know that's one of the reasons why Atlanta picked me; they think that I'm a guy who can go in and take care of Matt Ryan," Matthews said. "I'm going to do the best that I can."

The Falcons added guard Jon Asamoah and guard/tackle Gabe Carimi in free agency. Asamoah is a former starter with the Chiefs, while Carimi, a former first-round pick, is trying to salvage his career after being released by Chicago and Tampa Bay.

"We talked throughout this process about improving our team with tough, rugged football players, and Jake Matthews epitomizes exactly what we were looking for," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "He is a solid finisher and has good pass-protection skills. He is the type of player that we are always looking for here in Atlanta -- guys who are willing to work and those who come in and embrace the team concept."

The Falcons were particularly woeful in pass protection last season. They allowed pressure on 37.6 percent of their dropbacks, according to profootballfocus.com. The offensive line was given responsibility for allowing 32 of 44 sacks. The quarterback was hit 42 times additional times and hurried 190.

Matthews will be expected to help stabilize the unit immediately.

"We had a number of people tells us about Jake's work ethic, his study habits, and his passion for the game," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "He played in 52 games at Texas A&M with 46 starts and was a captain as a senior. He fits the bill for the kind of player we want on our team."

Matthews, the second-rated tackle in the draft, was not expected to be available. However, Jacksonville, in a surprise move, selected Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles with the third pick.

Many draft analysts projected that Matthews, whose father, Bruce Matthews, played 19 years in the NFL, was headed to St. Louis to play for Jeff Fisher, who coached his dad. However, the Rams drafted Auburn tackle Greg Robinson with the second pick.

Matthews, who's 6-foot-5 and 308 pounds, comes from one of football's top families. His father was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

He's also the grandson of Clay Matthews Sr., nephew of Clay Matthews Jr. and cousin of Clay Matthews III and Casey Matthews, who all have played in the NFL. There are local ties, too. Matthews Sr., played at Georgia Tech, and Matthews Jr., had a stint (1994-96) with the Falcons.

He already has the Dec. 8 game against Green Bay circled on his calendar.

"I'm fired up," Matthews said. "I talked to my dad, and some of his greatest memories were going against his brother. To finally get an opportunity to play against my cousin, who's All-Pro and a stud, is going to be a huge challenge. I'm looking forward to it."

Matthews, who considers Missouri's Kony Ealy the toughest defender he faced in the SEC, showed the ability to adjust while blocking for scrambling quarterback Johnny Manziel.

He credits his dad with helping him make the transition to the offensive line in high school. He had been a quarterback in youth football.

"I mean, having a Pro Football Hall of Famer help you figure out the position is definitely beneficial and helped to make me the player I am today," Matthews said.

Historically, the top 10 of the draft has been a minefield for the franchise. This was the 23rd time overall the Falcons picked in the top 10 of the draft.

In their two previous trips into the top 10 under Dimitroff, the Falcons struck gold with quarterback Matt Ryan, who was picked third in 2008, and wide receiver Julio Jones, who was nabbed sixth in 2011.

The second and third rounds of the draft are set for Friday, with rounds four through seven Saturday.

Falcons great Claude Humphrey, who's set to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August,was scheduled to announce the team's second-round pick.

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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