In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
Why Jake Matthews is on the list
Offensive linemen get better -- just like quarterbacks, cornerbacks and everyone else.
Unless an offensive lineman selected with a top-15 pick comes in and has a near-flawless rookie season like Zack Martin (who earned Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors in 2014 after the Cowboys took him in the first round), they tend to get lost in the muck of positional analysis. It's rare that we can take the time to recognize tangible growth, but Matthews (the sixth overall pick in 2014) improved by leaps and bounds during his sophomore season in Atlanta, and that matters a great deal to the Falcons -- in coordinator Kyle Shanahan's complex running offense, an anchor at left tackle is invaluable. Matthews, along with a smarter scheme that limited lone-island blocking, was a big reason for the rapid emergence of Devonta Freeman (1,056 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns in 2015). Check out his nimble feet -- pulling around the left edge -- on this Freeman touchdown:
We predicted Matthews' rise in a breakdown of the 2014 offensive line class and recognized that many of his perceived flaws as a rookie could be pinned on nagging lower-body injuries that affected his drive, plant and, in some cases, confidence. A review of some of his biggest games from 2015 backed that up.
We have to admit that we were nervous. The hypothesis nearly collapsed in Week 1, when Matthews battled it out with beastly Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox. There were times when Cox had Matthews completely baffled, leaping backward and letting him tumble to the turf on whiffed cut blocks. Then, on another snap, Cox would rip Matthews yards up field, leave the tackle in his wake and sprint toward the quarterback. But what impressed us there, and in nearly every other game, was how composed and smart Matthews was otherwise. Perhaps he didn't match Cox on power, but some of his run fakes that led to big plays were flawless.
Obstacles he'll face
Coaches will divide mistakes into technical and mental errors, just like they'll separate plays that featured a lack of effort from ones where effort and over-excitement might have been part of the problem.
Matthews (24) is still young, which is why he has plenty to learn about the technical aspect of stopping pass rushers -- but his down moments were never for a lack of effort. He is not the typical mauler, and his hand placement/foot speed are far above what you might expect from a player coming out of college. Basically, Matthews, like any other offensive lineman in football, just needs to see a few more plays and put them in the mental bank. He doesn't take many snaps off and he's usually visible blocking downfield. He's never going to be as physically intimidating as, say, fellow 2014 classmate Greg Robinson, but he will figure out a way to negate his deficiencies more quickly.
A few times, we saw Matthews in a poor position to dig his feet in, which led to him getting bullrushed and giving up ground. We would expect to see those instances -- which came at a rate of maybe four or five per game -- cut down significantly in 2016, just as, according to Pro Football Focus, he cut his combined sacks/QB hits allowed total from 16 in 2014 to seven last year.
Expectations for 2016
This is how ascension typically works for offensive linemen when the all-star voting system is partially based off the opinions of fans. Matthews got himself back on the radar last year, and he can continue rolling in 2016 while playing on a much better offensive line. Atlanta added Alex Mack in the offseason and put itself in position to be a top-10 rushing team.