Johnson injury throws Falcons O-line battle into flux

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Mike Johnson, who was leading the Falcons’ competition to win the starting job at right tackle, suffered a dislocated left ankle and fibula fracture on Tuesday and was carted off the practice field and driven away in an ambulance. 

The Falcons announced the news on the team’s official Twitter account at roughly 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday and said that Johnson would have surgery next week. The injury continues a recent trend of Falcons players going down.

Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier in the day that starting outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an open dislocation to a finger on his left hand on Monday that will sideline him indefinitely and Pro-Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones, who sat out practice the last two days, will miss Thursday’s first preseason game because of soreness in both hamstrings. 

The injury now likely throws the Falcons’ competition on the offensive line into flux. Having cut former Pro-Bowler Tyson Clabo — who started every game the team played since Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008 — in the offseason for salary cap reasons, the Falcons already were going to be forced to start a player who had never started a game in the NFL at that position.

Protecting quarterback Matt Ryan will be a key for the Falcons if they wish to improve upon last season’s performance, which ended with a loss in the NFC Championship Game. 

Lamar Holmes, a third-round draft pick last year, could be thrust into a leading role in a competition that now includes an additional unlikely candidate. The injury to Johnson certainly seems to underscore the importance of Thursday’s first preseason game with the Bengals at the Georgia Dome for Holmes. Smith was asked if it will be a big test for the 6-foot-6, 333-pounder. 

“A big test for all of our young guys,” Smith said. “First-time starters, first-time guys that are going to get a lot of significant playing time.” 

Holmes’ development suffered a setback when he arrived at rookie minicamp last year with a foot injury — Holmes called it a “hiccup” — and it did not heal until almost the start of the season (offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said during offseason team activities that Holmes lagged behind Johnson this summer for that reason). 

Since the start of camp, Holmes said he would get reps with the first team “every now and then.” 

“If I have to go in and play with the ‘ones’, I will,” Holmes said of the first team. “I’m very confident about playing.” 

Holmes discussed what it was like practicing against Bengals veterans like Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers, a 10-year pro. 

“They know exactly what they’re doing: where to put their hands, how to rush you on certain plays and how to set up certain opportunities,” Holmes said, “so they’re pretty good.” 

One player who has emerged during training camp is 6-foot-7, 300-pound undrafted free agent Ryan Schraeder, who was a part of Valdosta State Division II national championship team last season. Reacting almost immediately, the Falcons’ coaches began throwing Schraeder in for reps on Tuesday with the first team. 

Smith said Schraeder has been “good” during the preseason. 

“There’s a number of young free-agent offensive lineman that have good size and good footwork and athleticism, so we’re excited about it,” Smith said. “We’ve been excited about them from Day One, especially how big they are.” 

Previously in camp, Dimitroff said he thought Schraeder stood out, admiring the player’s aggressiveness and athleticism, citing in particular that he had played basketball and baseball. Schraeder addressed the jump he has made in the last few months from Division II to first team with the Falcons going against Cincinnati’s excellent defenders. 

“Yeah, I mean, when you’re out there in the heat of fire you don’t really think about that,” he said. “I just think about my job and what I got to do to make the offense run smoothly. Every day’s a learning process. Hopefully I can keep moving in the right direction.” 

Schraeder said he used to like playing pick-up basketball. 

“Being an offensive tackle, it’s perfect for the position,” he said. 

The Falcons have worked diligently for four years to develop Mike Johnson, who won a national championship at Alabama as a guard. A third-round pick in 2010, Johnson did not play any games as a rookie.

In 2011, he was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 26, when a foot injury ended his season after just two games. Last season, he played in 16 games as the “jumbo” tight end in short-yardage situations — a spot usually reserved for the Falcons’ top reserve. The team has “cross-trained” him, as Smith likes to say, to play tackle and he has added weight, bulking up to 304. 

On the first play of 9-on-7 drills against Cincinnati on Tuesday, he went down after a running play. He could not get up and immediately received medical attention from the Falcons’ staff.

Trainers appeared to be pumping something — what could have been an air cast. Starters Peter Konz, Sam Baker and Justin Blalock huddled over Johnson and then they, along with two other teammates and two trainers, lifted Johnson onto a cart. He was driven across the practice field to an ambulance, put on a stretcher and driven away. 

Right guard Garrett Reynolds said he did not see what happened. 

“I was doing something so I didn’t get to see,” Reynolds said. 

As the cart drove Johnson across the field, he had his right knee folded and rested his arm on it with his hand near his face. Reynolds was asked about whether his teammate was emotional. 

“It’s just like getting out of practice any time, you wish you were in there with your buddies,” Reynolds said. “He’s going to get it checked out and we don’t know anything about it. Hopefully, he’ll be good to go tomorrow.”

But that optimism seems dashed now. Dimitroff could be free to spend almost $7 million in cap space he has left. He said he would use it for emergency purposes. This situation may qualify.