FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When the Atlanta Falcons drafted Jake Matthews, they figured he would take over at left tackle someday.
They didn’t expect it to be this soon.
Midway through his first NFL preseason, the Falcons shifted Matthews across the line on Monday to replace Sam Baker, who went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Matthews, the No. 6 overall pick, was expected to break into the league at right tackle, a less-demanding position than protecting quarterback Matt Ryan’s blind side.
Now, the rookie will have to step up to the challenge right away.
“I think the coaches are going to put me in good situations,” Matthews said. “If I keep getting reps, I’ll be ready to go.”
Baker sustained a torn patellar tendon in his right knee during a 32-7 loss to the Houston Texans in a preseason game last Saturday night, hindering Atlanta’s plans for revamping the offensive line.
The team struggled mightily up front last season, a big reason the Falcons ranked last in the league in rushing and gave up 44 sacks, the most in Ryan’s career.
Not surprisingly, the Falcons used their top draft pick on Matthews and signed free agent Jon Asamoah, another instant starter at right guard. Baker, a former first-round pick who played only four games last season because of a knee injury, also was part of the rebuilding effort.
Coach Mike Smith tried to put the best face on Baker going down again.
“As soon as we had confirmation that Sam wasn’t going to be able to play anymore this season, it’s an easy switch,” Smith said. “Jake is a No. 1 pick, the sixth pick in the draft, he’s got left tackle written all over him.”
Former starter Lamar Holmes, who had been listed as Baker’s backup, moved over to take Matthews’ spot on the right side. Gabe Carimi and Ryan Schraeder will compete for playing time as well, though Carimi is banged up at the moment.
“You just flip your mind, get over to that other side, and continue to play fast,” said Holmes, who started 15 games last season – essentially because the team had few other choices – but has yet to show he can handle a first-team job.
The Falcons have no such concerns about Matthews, who played left tackle at Texas A&M and was projected to take over that position at some point in the NFL.
“Jake is comfortable playing both right and left,” Smith said. “I don’t think he’ll blink. We’re not.”
Even so, the newest version of the offensive line got a lot of attention at its first practice together. During one drill, assistant coach Mike Tice shouted instructions while Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff stood nearby, watching intently.
“Look how big a hole you’re leaving with your feet,” Tice barked to a lineman. “Come on, man, details.”
Matthews knows there will be an adjustment period as he makes the switch, especially since he’s only played two preseason games. He’ll have to switch up his footwork to get blocking leverage off his left leg instead of his right.
“It’s almost like going from your right hand to your left,” Matthews said. “But I did them both in college. I feel pretty comfortable on both sides.”
His job going forward it to make sure Ryan feels comfortable with a rookie protecting his back side.
“Honestly, it’s not that big a difference for me,” Matthews said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. Whether it’s on the right or left side, I put just as much pressure on myself.”
NOTES: The Falcons officially placed Baker on injured reserve and signed OT Pat McQuistan. The 317-pound McQuistan has played in 72 games with 11 starts over a career that includes stints with Dallas, Miami, New Orleans and Arizona. ... Smith said the competition is heating up at nickel back, a position filled the last two years by Robert McClain. Josh Wilson came aboard after starting every game the last three seasons for Washington. Another newcomer, Javier Arenas, will likely get more of a chance to show what he can do in Saturday’s preseason game against Tennessee.