NFL free agency preview: Offensive linemen

The (perceived...) weak offensive line class in the upcoming NFL draft will certainly mean this year's OL free agents could land some huge—maybe too big?—contracts.
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The 2017 draft is still two months away, but an early topic of discussion has been the perceived weakness of this year’s offensive tackle class. That’s potentially great news for the free agents about to hit the market at that position, because teams may opt to jump into bidding wars rather than try their hand on the incoming rookies.

Right tackle Ricky Wagner (Baltimore) and left tackle Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati) would be the top names there, should they go unsigned. But also in the mix could be five-year starter Riley Reiff (Detroit), who has experience on both sides of the lines, as well as LTs like Russell Okung (Denver), Kelvin Beachum (Jacksonville) and Ryan Clady (New York Jets).

At least the top three or four among that group stand to cash in huge.

The interior blockers are not to be overlooked, either. In January, the Jets signed Brian Winters to a four-year, $29 million extension with $15 million guaranteed—numbers that both Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati) and T.J. Lang (Green Bay) should surpass. Ronald Leary (Dallas) also could be in the ballpark, as he hunts out a starting job; Larry Warford (Detroit) may not be far behind.

There is help to be had, for a price.

Cream of the Crop: Kevin Zeitler

The Bengals’ relative stinginess has prevented them from retaining key players in the past, and it appears that approach could cost them both Zeitler and Whitworth this off-season. Either player departing would sting, but Zeitler is just 26 years old (turning 27 on March 8), which means the Bengals might be missing out on the prime years of his career.

Zeitler has started all 16 games for Cincinnati each of the past two seasons, and he’s been in the lineup for 72 of a possible 80 games since his first-round draft selection back in 2012.

The NFL’s franchise-tag setup tied the Bengals’ hands a bit—there is no tackle, guard or center designation; all offensive linemen are priced the same. This year, that cost sits at around $14 million, or $4 million more than the league’s highest-paid guards (David DeCastro and Kyle Long) make on average. Given the type of attention he would draw as a free agent, Zeitler could set his sights on $10 million per year himself.

Ideal team fit: Dolphins. With Laremy Tunsil set to move to tackle, the Dolphins likely need to fill two guard spots this off-season. May as well go for the best option available, right?

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Sleeper/Bargain: J.C. Tretter

Tretter has been primarily a center for the Packers, first as a backup and then as the full-time starter until a knee injury ended his 2016 season after just seven games. No doubt some of his value as a free agent, though, comes from his ability to play tackle in a pinch.

He did just that during the Packers’ 2015 playoff run, and that’s also where he suited up for Cornell, following a move from tight end.

Obviously, the goal at any position is to find an elite talent. Saving that along the offensive line, however, teams value versatility. Tretter provides that, and he’s shown—at least, when healthy—that he can handle a starting gig, too.

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Ideal team fit: Vikings. Minnesota’s issues along the offensive line have been a running theme for multiple seasons now. Tretter would provide them quality depth all over, plus could step in as the starter at center if the Vikings wanted to kick the tires on Joe Berger as a guard.

Overrated Player: Russell Okung

Almost immediately after the Broncos opted to decline Okung’s four-year, $48 million contract option (don’t be your own agent, kids), a report came from CBS’s Jason La Canfora that “no shortage of teams” was showing interest in the 28-year-old Okung. It akes sense, since he was a 16-game starter for the Broncos last year, plays on the left side and has a Pro Bowl berth on his resume.

On the flip side, there was a reason Denver balked at that hefty price tag—namely, that Okung was not anywhere near a $12 million-per-year starting tackle a season ago. And, prior to the 2016 campaign, he had not played a full 16-game schedule during any of his six years with the Seahawks.

Again, the general consensus is that this year’s draft class won’t offer much immediate help at tackle. Add in that Wagner is a right tackle and Reiff was moved to the right after Detroit drafted Taylor Decker, and there are limited desirable LT options. In theory, Okung is one.

But he’ll have to be better than he was in ’16, and healthier than he was from 2010–15, to pay off any substantial commitment in him.

Ideal team fit: Seahawks. Okung was at his best in Seattle, and it’s a team that has to find some answers at tackle this off-season.

Teams most in need of O-line help: Bills, Panthers, Bears, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Texans, Jaguars, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Giants, Jets, Seahawks, 49ers