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NFL Free Agent Feeding Frenzy, Part 1 - Offensive Tackles

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As positive news continues to leak out from the negotiating table, we’re looking at an imminent resumption of business as usual for the NFL – as well as a looming free agency period that promises to be the richest and wildest in the history of the league. This is the first of a series of articles taking a look at the bumper crop of 2011 free agents on a position-by-position basis with an eye towards giving our noble Barkers a sense of what will be available when their favorite NFL teams start shopping.

The means by which I rated the available free agents is discussed in some detail here, but the short version is that I took the 2010 position-specific player scores from profootballfocus.com (their detailed scoring method is discussed here) and converted them to a per-snap basis as a way of comparing guys who played 1000 snaps with guys who only played 300. Not a perfect system, but I feel pretty good about it being directionally correct – I know we’ve got fans of a lot of NFL teams around here, so if some of these player ratings are drastically at odds with your views on guys that you watch a lot I’d be interested to hear about it in the comments.

I’m kicking off this series with a look at the available offensive tackles – the traditional building blocks of a strong offensive line which, in turn is the key to victory according to the oft-repeated ‘you win the battle in the trenches’ mantra. This choice takes on a bit of irony following last February’s Super Bowl, when you saw a title fight between teams that trotted out as poor a set of starting tackles as you’re ever likely to see on this stage (Green Bay with an aging but still decent Chad Clifton and a not-yet-ready-for- prime time Bryan Bulaga, Pittsburgh with a thoroughly overmatched Jonathan Scott and a slow-footed penalty machine in Flozell Adams).

The free agent tackles got scored separately on their run and pass blocking, with a couple of viewpoints into the pass blocking side – both the per snap score and the percentage of passing snaps where the tackle allowed their man to generate some kind of pressure (a sack, QB hit or QB pressure). For reference, I’ve listed how the scores broke down in these categories in 2010 from the elite to the gawdawful, as well as some recognizable players who feel into each category.

Run Score/Snap

Elite: > 1.75 (Doug Free – DAL, Marshal Yanda – BAL, Jake Long – MIA)

Good: .75 – 1.74 (Jordan Gross – CAR, Andrew Whitworth – CIN, D’Brickashaw Ferguson – NYJ)

Average: (.2) - .74 (Joe Thomas – CLE, Eric Winston – HOU, Tyson Clabo – ATL)

Bad: (2.0) – (.2) (Donald Penn – TB, Marc Colombo – DAL, Russell Okung – SEA)

Gawdawful: < (2.0) (Levi Brown – ARI, Trent Williams – WAS, Ryan Diem – IND)

Pass Score/Snap

Elite: > 1.50 (Jake Long – MIA, Sean Locklear – SEA, D’Brickashaw Ferguson – NYJ)

Good: 0.5 – 1.49 (Jason Peters – PHI, Eric Winston – HOU, Marshal Yanda – BAL)

Average: (0.5) – 0.49 (Doug Free – DAL, Chad Clifton – GB, Sebastian Vollmer – NE)

Bad: (0.51) – (2.5) (Demetrius Bell – BUF, Jason Smith – SL, Jeromey Clary – SD)

Gawdawful: < (2.51) (Bryan Bulaga – GB, Langston Walker – OAK, Marc Colombo – DAL)

Pressure Percentage/Snap

Elite: < 4.5% (Jake Long – MIA, Andrew Whitworth – CIN, Sean Locklear – SEA)

Good: 4.6% - 5.8% (Joe Thomas – CLE, Doug Free – DAL, Eric Winston – HOU)

Average: 5.9% - 7.5% (Chad Clifton – GB, Jason Peters – PHI, Phil Loadholt – MIN)

Bad: 7.6% - 9.3% (Bryan Bulaga – GB, Flozell Adams – PIT, Charlie Johnson - IND)

Gawdawful - > 9.3% (Anthony Davis – SF, Levi Brown – ARI, Frank Omiyale – CHI)

With all that preamble out of the way, here’s a look some of the tackles that will be available in a few different price ranges.

NEIMAN-MARCUS

Doug Free (Dallas)

Age: 27

Run Score/Snap: 3.78 (Elite)

Pass Score/Snap: 0.41 (Average)

Pressure Percentage: 5.2% (Good)

Doug Free is the stud of the bunch when it comes to free agents at offensive tackle due to his age (a coltish 27), premium position (left side – STRONG SIDE!), credible showing as a pass blocker in his first year on the left and absolutely devastating run blocking whether he’s in-line, pulling/getting to the second level, or 40 yards down the damn field . The overall play of the Cowboys’ O-line wasn’t as bad last season as most probably remember (outside of vile play from a broken-down Marc Colombo) – a lot of solid blocking was undone by a lack of coordination (four guys hitting their blocks while the fifth missed his) and an obscene amount of penalties during the first half of the year as their season melted before their eyes. With that said, the ‘Boys will be up crique la merde sans raquette de ping-pong if Jerrah doesn’t get Free back into the fold, and Tony Romero will receive injury. The one concern is that Free was a big part of the reason that the Cowboys’ OL generated more yellow laundry than an incontinent nursing home (he racked up 11 penalties by himself) but there’s no doubt that this man should, and will, get paid. All that lands him in the Neiman-Marcus section – high quality at a high price.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 6 years, $51MM total, $24MM guaranteed

[UPDATE 7/27: The Cowboys avoid an unwanted float trip by re-signing Free for 4 years and $32 million with $17 million guaranteed - I was close on the dollars and guarantees per year but figured he'd command a longer deal. The upside for Free from this arrangement is that he'll likely get to cash in one more time while he's just 30.]

Marshall Yanda (Baltimore)

Age: 26

Run Score/Snap: 2.8 (Elite)

Pass Score/Snap: 0.82 (Good)

Pressure Percentage: 5.3% (Good)

Marshall Yanda is going to be a coveted guy and is probably the best all-around RT on the market (who has also succeeded at guard in the past). He’s in his prime at age 26, accomplished in both run and pass blocking and helped keep the Ravens offense afloat after the loss of Jared Gaither to injury and Michael Oher’s shaky transition to the Blind Side. The Ravens have a ton of guys to re-sign but Yanda will likely be high on their list of priorities.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 5 years, $36MM total, $16MM guaranteed

[UPDATE 7/27: Yanda re-signs with the Ravens for 5 years and $32 million.]

Some other guys in this tier:

Team Age Run /Snap Pass/Snap Pressure /Snap

Sean Locklear SEA 30 -1.96 (Bad) 1.88 (Elite) 4.1% (Elite)

Tyson Clabo ATL 29 -.07 (Avg. .81 (Good) 5.5% (Good)

NORDSTROM RACK

Jared Gaither (Baltimore)

Age: 25

Run Score/Snap: N/A 2010, -0.3 in 2009 (Average)

Pass Score/Snap: N/A 2010, 3.7 in 2009 (Elite)

Pressure Percentage: N/A 2010, 3.1% in 2009 (Elite)

Jared Gaither is an interesting case. In 2009 he did a pretty damn solid job at LT – particularly in the pass blocking department – and looked to be a rising young star. At the same time, the Ravens had highly anointed draft pick Michael Oher mauling away at right tackle. It seemed that Ozzie Newsome and the gang envisioned Oher moving to THE BLIND SIDE, however, so the Ravens were planning a tackle flip-flop. Whether this was the best course of action became moot when Gaither experienced back problems that ended up wiping out his entire 2010 season. Oher didn’t cover himself in glory during his first season at LT (-1.15 Pass Score/Snap and a ghastly 13 penalties - maybe he didn't score 98th percentile in Protective Instincts after all) but the Ravens seem committed to keeping him there which means Gaither is almost certain to hit the streets. Any lineman with back issues is worrisome (although Drew Rosenhaus says he’s fine, and his word is clearly strong as oak). Another troubling note is that many a whisper from Raven-land seemed to indicate that his practice habits didn’t indicate the inner fire of a big man that you’d want to pay big money to. That makes him a risky buy in my book, but his proven ability to lock down the left side will certainly draw suitors. That lands him at the head of the Nordstrom Rack list – brand-name label, but marked down for a reason.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 4 years, $28MM total, $12MM guaranteed

Willie Colon (Pittsburgh)

Age: 28

Run Score/Snap: N/A 2010, -0.0 in 2009 (Average)

Pass Score/Snap: N/A 2010, 3.7 in 2009 (Elite)

Pressure Percentage: N/A 2010, 2.4% in 2009 (Elite)

Going into 2010 it looked like Willie Colon would be the brightest spot on a shaky Pittsburgh OL, but an Achilles injury late in the preseason put him on the shelf for all of last season and leaving the Pittsburgh line in shambles. An injured Colon can often lead to a shitshow, and that’s exactly how it turned out for the Steelers at tackle – you will likely NEVER see a team reach the Super Bowl with a tackle troika as poor as Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott and Max Starks. Despite a build that’s arguably more guard-like, Colon showed off a finesse game in 2009, being so-so as a run blocker in a position that’s normally geared more towards maulers, but doing a terrific job of keeping Roethlisberger upright (at least until Big Ben scrambled himself into trouble, threw the guy off his back and fired a ball downfield after seven seconds as is his wont). Considering the fiasco at tackle that the Steelers endured in his absence you’d think they’d scramble to re-sign him, but some rumors out of Terrible Towel Town indicate that he may hit the open market – the Steelers’ second-round selection of RT prospect Marcus Gilbert from Florida may be another sign of this line of thinking. If Colon hits the market, his value will probably be depressed a bit by his position and recent injury, but teams looking to solidify their right side could do a lot worse – he’d be on my very short list to take over for the corpse of Marc Colombo had the Cowboys not drafted Tyron Smith.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 4 years, $24MM total, $9MM guaranteed

Some other guys in this tier:

Team Age Run/Snap Pass/Snap Pressure /Snap

Mario Henderson* OAK 26 -3.16 (Bad) 1.53 (Elite) 5.7% (Good)

Matt Light NE 33 1.86 (Elite) -1.78 (Bad) 8.5% (Bad)

* Restricted Free Agent

TARGET

Ryan Harris (Denver)

Age: 26

Run Score/Snap: -1.47 (Bad)

Pass Score/Snap: 0.15 (Average)

Pressure Percentage: 6.3% (Average)

Ryan Harris has been up and down in his NFL career so far – he played pretty well in 2008 at RT for the Broncos, was decent for half a season in 2009 before dislocating a toe, and started the 2010 season on the bench before taking over at RT again once Zane Beadles kicked inside to guard. In a way his 2010 performance mirrored that of the Broncos’ OL as a whole – shoddy run blocking that set Knowshon Moreno up for a festival of in-the-backfield ass kickings coupled with solid pass protection that bought enough time for Kyle Orton to make a superhero out of none other than Brandon Lloyd (who paired with Peyton Hillis as the unlikeliest fantasy football free agent pickups to carry teams with idiot owners who had drafted terribly to their league titles – not that I’m bitter). Harris will never be confused with a superstar at the right tackle spot, but he’ll plug away and keep your QB alive which is certainly worth something. That lands him squarely in the Target division – decent value at a bargain price.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 4 years, $14MM total, $5MM guaranteed

Barry Sims (San Francisco)

Age: 36

Run Score/Snap: -1.85 (Bad)

Pass Score/Snap: 0.32 (Average)

Pressure Percentage: 6.8% (Average)

There’s no getting around it – Barry Sims is old. He was signed to be a veteran backup by the 49ers back in 2008, but has been pressed into service due to injury each of the last two seasons and acquitted himself pretty well. Last year he got plugged in at left tackle for the last seven games of the season after Joe Staley went down and did a solid job of holding down the fort. He’s probably lost the pop to be a very effective run blocker, but he still showed well in pass protection (and far better than a lot of other free agent tackles). At 36 he’s not someone you make long term plans around, but he’s probably got at least another season or two of decent pass protection in him and would be an immediate starting upgrade in places like Arizona or Buffalo if they somehow get through free agency without addressing their LT voids in a more substantive way.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 2 years, $4.5MM total, $1.5MM guaranteed

Some other guys in this tier:

Team Age Run/Snap Pass/Snap Pressure /Snap

Corey Hilliard DET 26 0.1 (Avg.) -1.51 (Bad) 6.6% (Avg.

CAM NEWTON’S DISCOUNT LAPTOP EMPORIUM

Jamaal Brown (Washington)

Age: 30

Run Score/Snap: -3.07 (Gawdawful)

Pass Score/Snap: -1.80 (Bad)

Pressure Percentage: 8.0% (Bad)

Not all that long ago, OU product Jamaal Brown looked to be on his way to elite left tackle status as he helped pave the way for a devastating offensive assault in New Orleans. When he tore his ACL at the start of the 2009 season it looked like a major blow for the Saints, who nonetheless plugged in the unheralded Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and rode Drew Brees/Marques Colston/God’s Apology for Katrina to the Super Bowl. Despite a shaky show from Bushrod, the Saints were willing to part ways with Brown and traded him for a mid-round pick to Washington before last season. At the time I remember being pissed that the Redskins had picked up a potential stud for a relative bargain price. It didn’t quite work out that way as Brown was flat-out terrible in 2010 on the right side – he and LT Trent Williams caused an aging Donovan McNabb to take a Robin Givens-esque beating. Redskins running backs had no cause to love this duo either, as they tended to receive the handoff at about the same time as a rib shot from a free-running defensive end. Now Brown has showed at a high level not that long ago and maybe his problems were a combination of injury recovery, a move to the right side and the general Snyderian malaise that afflicts Redskins Park, but this is a case of buyer beeeeeee-ware. That lands him in bad company at Cam Newton’s Discount Laptop Emporium – you might get a bargain, but you’ll probably end up with something you don’t want in your possession at all.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 3 years, $10MM total, $2.5MM guaranteed

Charlie Johnson (Indianapolis)

Age: 27

Run Score/Snap: -0.97 (Bad)

Pass Score/Snap: -2.22 (Bad)

Pressure Percentage: 8.7% (Bad, with a major caveat)

Jamaal Brown was blocking for one of the NFL’s worst offenses in 2010, while Charlie Johnson was blocking for one of the best – what a difference a QB makes. Several QBs in 2010 deserved special shout-outs for putting up great numbers despite shoddy blocking on the edge (Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger in particular), Peyton Manning is right there with them. If Manning had choice words for Donald Brown after missing a blitz pickup,he must turn into Joe Pesci in Casino when addressing his turnstile of a left tackle. The caveat for Johnson’s being merely ‘bad’ in pressure percentage? The fact that Manning may be the best in league history at making lightning-fast reads and getting rid of the ball to avoid pressure. Johnson gave up a horrendous 57 pressure plays in 2010 (behind only Marc Colombo with 58, rookie Anthony Davis with 59 and the abominable Levi Brown with a stunning 70) on the toughest QB in the league to pressure. If he was blocking for a mere mortal, Johnson might have put the record out of reach and put his QB into traction. The Colt’s selection of Anthony Castonzo in the first round of the 2011 draft may mean sayonara for Johnson, and any GM that picks him up for a starting role may be subjecting their QB to an unending wave of kamikazes.

Fearless Contract Prediction: 2 years, $4MM total, $1.2MM guaranteed

Some other guys in this tier:

Team Age Run/Snap Pass/Snap Pressure /Snap

Dennis Roland CIN 28 -1.01 (Bad) -3.48 (Awful) 8.1% (Bad)

Jonathan Scott PIT 28 -3.85 (Awful) -1.50 (Bad) 8.4% (Bad)

Jeremy Trueblood TB 28 -.34 (Bad) -5.72 (Awful) 11.8% (Awful)

That’s it for our look at the offensive tackle shopping list – the next article will cover guards and centers. Throughout this series if you’ve got any questions on players that you don’t see listed or how some of the other guys on your favorite teams scored on these scales let me know in the comments.