When we evaluate and take stock of free agent running backs or wide receivers, it’s easy to point to simple statistics like yards per carry, receptions, or yards after catch to attempt to determine a value. For offensive linemen, there are no basic stats that fully capture a player’s performance. Even a quantifiable number such as sacks allowed doesn’t tell the whole story, since it leaves out a variety of variables — the lineman’s competition, how many times he received help, how many quarterback hits he allowed, and so on.
Watching a particular lineman on every snap would give us a pretty clear idea of how he’s playing, but few of us have the time to devote to such a project. Fortunately, the team at Pro Football Focus has done the majority of the dirty work for us, evaluating players’ performances on each snap and turning that data into grades that take into account pass blocking, run blocking, and the ability to avoid penalties, among other factors. For our next few installments in our look at the free agent market, we’ll be relying heavily on PFF’s data in helping to determine which free agent offensive linemen should attract the most attention this offseason.
This year’s group of free agent offensive tackles should generate plenty of interest on the open market next month, with a number of clubs looking to upgrade the most important positions on the offensive line. It’s fair to suggest that nearly every team in the NFL will consider adding at least one tackle this offseason, if only for depth purposes. As for the teams with a more pressing need, the Dolphins, Cardinals, Rams, Saints, Falcons, Titans, Seahawks, Ravens, Panthers, Jets, Jaguars, and Raiders could all be in the market for a starter on one side or the other.
Here are some of the players expected to be available:
Zach Strief of the Saints ranked as 2013’s best right tackle according to Pro Football Focus’ grades, buoyed by his excellent pass-blocking numbers. Strief will be a priority for the Saints, as they look to keep Drew Brees out of harm’s way, but the 30-year-old will be an intriguing commodity if he hits free agency. Austin Howard, meanwhile, saw his PFF ranking hurt by his run-blocking grade, but the Jets are making him a priority this offseason, with one report speculating that a lucrative four-year contract is a possibility.
Former second-round pick Rodger Saffold played all over the line for the Rams in 2013, and is reportedly drawing interest as a guard as well as a tackle. His flexibility will make him attractive to potential suitors, as will his age — coming off his rookie contract, he’s still just 25 years old.
The real prizes of this group though are the left tackles, the players tasked with protecting their quarterbacks’ blind sides. By PFF’s numbers, Jordan Gross ranked as the best tackle of this year’s free agent class, and the NFL’s third-best tackle overall. However, he remains undecided on whether or not he’ll continue his career. If he does decide to keep playing, he’s a good bet to return to the Panthers. At age 26, Jared Veldheer certainly isn’t considering retirement, but it sounds like there’s a decent chance he re-signs with his current team (the Raiders) as well. After a triceps injury sidelined him for a good chunk of 2013, Veldheer is reportedly seeking a long-term deal rather than a franchise tag, and would like to see talks accelerate before next month.
Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe round out the top tier of left tackles eligible for free agency. Albert appears likely to leave the Chiefs, while Monroe is in talks with the Ravens but says he isn’t about to take a discount to stay in Baltimore.
Speaking of the blind side, the subject of Hollywood’s only film about a left tackle, Michael Oher, had a down year in 2013, ranking as the worst run-blocker of 76 qualified tackles according to PFF’s metrics. His pass blocking was much better, albeit as a right tackle in 2013, which should get him some offers. If the Ravens can lock up Monroe, I wouldn’t expect Oher to return.
Tyson Clabo‘s performance as Miami’s primary right tackle in 2013 was passable, though it remains to be seen whether he’ll be back as the team overhauls its offensive line in the wake of the Wells report. Fellow right tackle Tony Pashos of the Raiders turns 34 this summer, but ranked slightly ahead of Clabo on PFF’s metrics and figures to seek out another starting gig for 2014.
Byron Bell has been the Panthers’ starting right tackle for three straight seasons, and has been steadily climbing out of the basement of PFF’s rankings, from 68th to 60th to 52nd. For a Super Bowl contender, he’s not an ideal option, but as a restricted free agent, he should be relatively affordable, which could mean a reunion with Carolina. Breno Giacomini has been the starting right tackle for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks in recent years, but that relationship looks less likely to continue, with Giacomini potentially being too expensive for Seattle, a team which has other priorities.
Rounding out the second tier: Veteran Eric Winston, who has started all 16 games for seven straight seasons; Anthony Collins of the Bengals, who has never had a chance to run with a full-time starting job during his six years in Cincinnati; and Khalif Barnes of the Raiders, who filled in for Veldheer at left tackle for much of 2013, but is probably better suited for another spot on the line.
A team that misses out on one of the options above may be pressed into starting one of the players in this group, but in an ideal scenario, these guys would be no more than the third tackle in a rotation.
That includes Bryant McKinnie, Charles Brown, and Cameron Bradfield (restricted), all of whom logged major time at left tackle in 2013 and whose PFF grades were significantly below average. Sean Locklear, Jeremy Trueblood, Marshall Newhouse, and Winston Justice were also all starters at some point in their careers, but would be better utilized as backups.
One intriguing name amidst this bevy of options might be Ryan Harris, who was an above-average right tackle for the Broncos for multiple seasons before coming off the bench during the last two years in Houston. He’ll only turn 29 next month, so Harris should still have plenty left in the tank and may have a little upside.