You’ve already read how the Falcons decided on Drake London with the No. 8 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. But what about the rest of the draft class? How did the Falcons find them? How did they land on them? Through interviews with area scouts and position coaches, these stories unfold. Every Tuesday for the next seven weeks, we’ll try to tell those stories about the Falcons’ 2022 draft pick.
Arnold Ebiketie and Troy Andersen’s stories were already told last month, Desmond Ridder’s started back in June, followed by DeAngelo Malone and Tyler Allgeier’s stories. With only two stories to tell in this series, we’re going down the road to Athens, where Justin Shaffer and John FitzPatrick spent their college years. First, we’ll take a closer look at Shaffer, the anchor that kept the Falcons focused in 2021.
Dwayne Ledford isn’t too far removed from his college coaching days. So when evaluating the young talent coming through the draft, it gives an extra look at who those offensive lines are facing on a day-to-day basis.
Before jumping to the NFL to become the Falcons offensive line coach, Ledford coached the same position at NC State from 2016 to 2018. During that time, his linemen faced future NFL talent every day in practice.
“The defensive line was Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones at the time,” Ledford noted. “All those guys went in the early rounds of the draft. We always say iron sharpens iron, but our offensive line has to go up against that defensive line every day in practice.”
Ledford said the difference was evident when that particular offensive line faced off against other opponents on Saturdays.
But what does this have to do with Justin Shaffer, the Falcons’ No. 190 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft? A lot, in fact, who Shaffer faced every day when he was playing less than an hour from the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch.
After winning the national championship this January, the University of Georgia took 15 Bulldogs during the 2022 Draft, breaking the previous year’s school record. Eight of the 15 were defensive players. Most notable, however, was the fact that five of those running backs were taken in the first round, a feat unmatched by any other college team in draft history.
All of which is to say this: On any given day (outside of Saturday’s game, of course) Shaffer was up there with Travon Walker, Jordan Davis, Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt, to name a few.
“When you think about Justin, you think about what he went up against every day in practice,” Ledford said. “And not just in practice, but weight training, and all the competitive stuff you’d go through in a program. He’s running alongside all these guys, competing with them.”
For those who saw Shaffer on that line at Georgia the past two years, you likely also saw the jump in his game from his junior year to his senior year. It’s a jump that has caught the attention of scouts in the area. Falcons field scout Shepley Heard was one of them.
After making 27 starts over the past two seasons (27-of-26 at left guard), Heard said Shaffer’s jump was due to that accumulation of reps.
“He made a significant jump (in 2021). There’s no doubt about it,” Heard said. “It was just that experience. He was a first-year starter last year. You had (Jamaree) Salyer next to you and there was almost a comfort level there when you have that guy next to you. Those guys worked really well together.”
Heard also brought up something that Ledford noted, “When you’re going against NFL talent every day,” it also helps.
Ultimately, though, when it came to the pick, the Falcons weren’t looking at those around Shaffer. They were looking at Shaffer himself, because they saw something in him that matched what they were looking for.
Speaking with Ledford and Heard about what initially caught their eye about Shaffer’s play, both said more or less the same thing: they liked his ability to anchor himself where he needed to be to keep the pocket clean.
To be honest, Heard said, it’s hard to find someone with the natural ability to anchor the way Shaffer does.
“When I talk about anchors I’m talking about guys in pass protection who don’t get back to the pocket, don’t get back to the quarterback,” Heard explained. “It’s hard to find that with guys that big and that strong, especially playing in the SEC when you’re going up against top talent every week, but you guys are rocking at the line of scrimmage and being able to block and hold. Those are the players that you sit back and think, ‘OK. This is going back to the NFL.'”
When Shaffer was put on Ledford’s radar, the offensive line coach thought the same thing, noting the “power, girth and anchor” of Shaffer’s play. Ledford said those three traits set him up to withstand a three-point offense and elaborate running offense when Georgia ran the ball.
Then, when the Bulldogs got going, Shaffer’s short-field quickness intrigued Ledford as well. At the end of the pre-draft evaluation process, Ledford saw a player who would fit what the Falcons are trying to build at the position.
Ledford said there are a few points of emphasis he and coach Arthur Smith look for when bringing in linemen. They want to see the guys who play through the whistle. These linemen want to be around the football, constantly.
Spicy Bad. Strong. These are the words and qualities the Falcons want their offensive linemen to possess.
“Those are some of the fundamentals that we never want to stray from when choosing guys to be a part of this team. … We wouldn’t want to make an exception to bring a guy in if he didn’t show those things for us,” Ledford said. “I think you see a passion from Justin in the way he plays, in the way he plays. His style of play matches what we value.”
It’s something that makes Shaffer stand out, regardless of who he’s going up against.
“I think he’s what we’re looking for,” Heard said. “I think we need that guy. We need a guy who can get a boost in the run game. We need a guy who can give us an anchor in the passing game. Now you have a guy who has a lot of experience playing up. -Finish football in the SEC, the last two starting a lot of games over the years doing that.”