2014 NFL Free Agency Primer: O-line
Offensive tackles stormed the top of the 2013 NFL draft, claiming picks Nos. 1, 2 and 4 overall. Quarterbacks may have reclaimed the spotlight this year, even though three more tackles (Taylor Lewan, Jake Matthews and Greg Robinson) all could land in the top 10.
Before all that goes down, though, teams will sift through free agency for help up front. At every spot along the offensive line, there are talented and experienced players to be found.
Monroe dodged the franchise tag, but will the Ravens really allow him to reach free agency? Doing so would set them back to square one at left tackle, where Monroe stepped in following a trade and supplanted Michael Oher (who moved to the right side). The 26-year-old Monroe was the best blocker on an inconsistent line over the final 11 games of the season. In turning in that performance, the eighth-overall pick in 2009 set himself up for a large payday should the Ravens fail to keep him under contract.
2. Branden Albert
A member of the quite fictional Marshawn Lynch Club for Players Who Are Younger Than You Think. Still just 29, Albert already has one foot out the door in Kansas City -- remember that last offseason, the Chiefs used the franchise tag on Albert ahead of drafting Eric Fisher, reportedly in hopes of trading the former. Those plans backfired (to the Chiefs' benefit) and Albert held down the LT fort for 12 regular-season games plus the playoff loss in Indianapolis. Albert has played all 16 games in a regular season just once in his six-year career.
Based on his massive 6-foot-8, 320-pound frame alone, Veldheer probably sits atop more than a couple teams' wish lists as free agency approaches. The Raiders left themselves on shaky footing here by declining to use either the franchise or transition tag on Veldheer, meaning that he could bolt if a new contract does not come to fruition by March 11. Veldheer missed the first 11 games of the 2013 season after partially tearing his triceps, though he did dodge injured reserve to return for the final five weeks.
Capable of playing at either left or right tackle, Collins stepped in as Andy Dalton's blindside protector for the second half of last season and bolstered the Bengals O-line in the process. He's never quite measured up to the potential that many see in him, but perhaps that late-2013 run will be a springboard to bigger and better things in the future.
5. Zach Strief
Strief allowed just three sacks last season while grading out as Pro Football Focus' No. 3 pass-blocking tackle. The challenge for any team courting Strief (assuming he does not stick with the Saints) is figuring out how much of that success was of Strief's own doing and how much can be attributed to Drew Brees' wares in the pocket. Strief will turn 31 in mid-September; he's headed into his ninth NFL season, so a long-term deal may be a risk.
Overrated: Michael Oher. The book appears to be out on Oher now, following another season in which he struggled to play left tackle and really never found his footing on the right, either. His durability (he has not missed a game in five seasons) and reputation might drive up the price higher than it should be.
Underrated: Rodger Saffold. Though it may not always seem like it, Saffold has steadily improved over his four years in the NFL. The latest career boost came in 2013 as he moved inside to guard for the Rams. His versatility -- he can play anywhere but center -- should be a major selling point.
Schwartz needed half the 2013 season to claim a starting job for the Chiefs, then made the most of his opportunity once he did. The ex-Panther and Viking should be entering his prime at age 28 with a jolt of confidence from his recent success. Prior to jumping onto the Chiefs' first team, Schwartz had not started a game since 2010 -- he missed all of 2011 with a hip injury.
2. Zane Beadles
A Pro Bowler in 2012, Beadles slipped a bit last season. His pass-protection abilities still pair well with what the Broncos did under Peyton Manning, so he may be best off simply staying put. That said, should the 27-year-old four-year starter venture out into free agency, he would find several teams interested.
Possibly en route to his fourth team in six seasons and having struggled with injury issues in the past, Rinehart will not be a guy that a team breaks the bank to land. But he more than held his own for the Chargers last season (despite missing five-plus games). Rinehart will have to convince front offices that he's healthy.
If we knew for sure that Wharton intended to play in 2014, he would have had a case for the top guard spot here. Instead, the soon-to-be 33-year-old has left his future somewhat up in the air -- Carolina already bid farewell to long-time tackle Jordan Gross, who recently retired. Wharton, with 111 Panthers starts under his belt since 2004, could follow Gross into the sunset. He may opt to play for the Panthers or no one. His one venture to a different franchise (Cincinnati in 2012) ended with Wharton missing the entire season due to a knee injury and then being released.
5. Jon Asamoah
Time for a change of scenery. Asamoah is the youngest guard in our top five (he'll turn 26 in July), so teams should have no problem committing to him for multiple seasons if they so choose. He started all 16 games for the Chiefs in 2011 and 15 more in '12, before that number was reduced to nine last season. Schwartz should be the priority in Kansas City, which would free up Asamoah to find a new home.
Overrated: Beadles. He is a talented interior lineman, no question. However, much like Strief with the Saints, it's fair to ask what level of assistance his showing received from having Manning calling the shots.
Underrated: Willie Colon. There may be nothing spectacular in Colon's game, yet when he is healthy (he played just one game in 2011) he is about as steady as they come. Colon tore his biceps at the end of December -- a fact that could allow some team to scoop him up as a bargain.
1. Alex Mack
The Browns dropped the transition tag on Mack, meaning they can match any offer he receives in free agency. A team seeking a center ought to take a run here anyway, even if the pursuit turns out to be more trouble than it's worth. Mack is that valuable as an anchor on the line, at a position that has seen its value increase over the past couple seasons.
Dietrich-Smith picked a good time to have his breakthrough season -- he started all 16 games at center for the Packers last season, nearly doubling his previous career starts total (nine). Aaron Rodgers wants Dietrich-Smith back. That's a very valuable vote of confidence.
3. Ryan Wendell
You just cannot get this guy off the field. Wendell played 1,231 offensive snaps in 2012 and another 1,218 this past season. Will teams view that as excessive wear and tear or proof of terrific durability? More than likely, the answer will lie somewhere in the middle. Wendell also did not play as well in 2013 as he did '12.
New Orleans reportedly is considering letting de la Puente walk in favor of 2013 undrafted free agent Tom Lelito, a cheaper if far less proven option. So, there may not be much to excite prospective buyers here beyond de la Puente's extensive playing time. With 44 starts to his credit over the past three seasons, de la Puente still will drive some interest, especially for a team that throws the ball frequently.
There may not be much left in the tank for Goodwin, who is 35 and has played 12 NFL seasons. Counterpoint: He hasn't missed a game since 2008, locking down the center spot first for the Saints and then for the 49ers in the ensuing stretch.
Overrated: de la Puente. The Saints appear ready to move on for a reason. Namely, that de la Puente is a serviceable option at center but hardly a dominant blocker in any aspect.Underrated: Fernando Velasco. A November Achilles injury ended Velasco's 2013 season and could hold him back early in 2014. However, prior to that injury, he bailed out a desperate Pittsburgh team with an adequate showing up front.