Over the following weeks, here at Franchise Sports we will be covering the NFL free agency period, with previews of players hitting the market and reaction pieces to the biggest moves. Offensive linemen are the focus of this piece.
Quality offensive linemen are difficult to find. As a result, above average players, or those who have suddenly had a breakout season, find themselves in a prime position to get seriously paid in free agency. Last offseason the New York Giants paid out $62 million for tackle Nate Solder in a bid to improve the quality of the protection around Eli Manning. This offseason there might not be a blocker with the name value of Solder but we are likely to see some big money paid for these players.
Disclaimer: best fits are based on team need and projected salary cap space. Team cap space is frequently changing, especially in the current run up to free agency. Therefore, other team fits may become available as players are cut or have their contracts restructured.
Trent Brown (offensive tackle)
Brown put together a noticeably improved season in New England, after moving over to the left side as well as moving teams. Despite concerns about him in San Francisco, he graded as an above average tackle at Pro Football Focus with a 71.0 score. The question for prospective teams is, was the significant improvement in Brown’s play an indicator of a player developing into a starting calibre blindside blocker, or a symptom of being coached by Patriots O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who seems to turn all linemen to gold?
Best fits: Cleveland, Houston, Buffalo
Cleveland are keen to upgrade the left tackle position, after failing to fully replace the retiring Joe Thomas, plus they, as well as the Texans and Bills, are flush with cap space. As the Giants found out last offseason, offensive linemen come at a premium in free agency with even players with serious question marks picking up rich contracts. In addition, if they want to see the continued development of Baker Mayfield, whilst running the ball effectively with Nick Chubb (and potentially Kareem Hunt), the line play needs to improve.
Houston desperately needs to upgrade both its tackle positions. Deshaun Watson can’t take the number of hits he has from opposing D-linemen and linebackers and the Texans know what his loss means for the offence. They also have the New England connections with former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien the head coach in Texas.
Equally, if Buffalo wants to protect its prized investment, QB Josh Allen, and allow him to develop as a pocket passer, they need to upgrade their previously effective O-line. GM Brandon Beane has said he isn’t planning on a massive spending spree this summer, but the Bills will want to wisely direct their resources to certain areas of the roster. Beane was in Carolina when they reached the Super Bowl with effective line play, so he knows the value of the position.
Ja’Wuan James (offensive tackle)
A former first round pick for the Dolphins in Miami, James has developed a reputation as an effective right tackle in Florida, grading 70.8 with Pro Football Focus last year.
Just like Brown, that means he’s likely to get paid this year. But unlike his fellow tackle in the AFC East, it’s unlikely James will be moved to the left side. If the Dolphins are starting a full scale rebuild in South Beach, it seems illogical to part with a young building block drafted by the franchise, but the ‘Fins have less than $10 million in cap space to work with and will be perhaps be looking for a long-term deal for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. However, if Miami cuts a number of veterans such as Ryan Tannehill and Robert Quinn, a return to Hard Rock Stadium could be on the cards.
Best fits: Miami, Cincinnati, Cardinals
As mentioned previously, if the Dolphins clear some cap space, and a market for James doesn’t materialise at the level he hopes for, he could return to the team that drafted him.
The Bengals tackle situation has been stabilised somewhat by the addition of Cordy Glenn but the drafting of Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher hasn’t worked out, with the latter attempting to reinvent himself as a blocking tight end. Cincinnati has just under $50 million in cap space with Ogbuehi, Fisher, Andre Smith and starting right tackle Bobby Hart all unrestricted free agents. New head coach Zac Taylor comes from an offensive background and saw how effective line play enabled Sean McVay’s offense to flourish in LA, making the Bengals candidates here.
The Cardinals have D.J. Humphries at left tackle, though he could be cut over injury concerns. Right tackle Joe Barksdale is an unrestricted free agent, and the Cardinals may place a premium on athletic linemen in order to implement new head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid style offense.
Mitch Morse and Matt Paradis (centre)
Both players are high quality centres whose seasons were cut short by injury last season. Looking through the teams who may have a need at centre, there is a real lack of potential suitors. Teams who may be looking for better quality on the interior of the line, such as Arizona and Minnesota have young players at those positions in Mason Cole and Pat Elflein, respectively. The Broncos’ unwillingness to sign Paradis to an extension given that he has been a bright spot on an otherwise weak unit is puzzling, whilst for the Chiefs it is more understandable given the relative lack of cap space they have and the need to improve the defence.
Best fits: Washington, Miami
Washington is going to lean heavily on the run game given their need to add a new QB and current relative lack of weapons in the passing game. Adding a player who can help anchor the run game and allow Derrius Guice (and possibly Adrian Peterson) to take the pressure off whoever is under centre, would be a preferable move for Jay Gruden.
Miami is in a similar situation. They’re likely to be starting a middle-of-the-road quarterback or a rookie next year and also lacks weapons in the passing game. New head coach Brian Flores might look to the success his former employers the Patriots had this season and attempt to replicate that.