With the 2017 NFL season to begin next week, unrestricted free agency coming with it, and the common knowledge that the Denver Broncos need help on the offensive line, particularly at left and right tackle, I wanted to explore what I believe will likely happen with the offensive line market.
Although our attentions have been primarily focused on offensive tackles, I think we need to keep in mind that the Broncos might believe it’s better to take a different approach than just chasing after free agent offensive tackles, and instead focus on the best possible offensive linemen they can get in each wave of free agency. That’s because more teams are starting to focus their energies and cap dollars toward acquiring the best offensive lineman possible, rather than the old “left tackle is the priority” way of thinking that once dominated the landscape.
One thing we have to keep in mind is that most teams are not relying on the old standby of having their best pass rusher come at the quarterback’s blind side and instead have their best pass rusher line up in different spots. The Broncos did this all the time with Von Miller and I see nothing to indicate that will change with a new coaching staff. And the Broncos aren’t the only team to do this. Just look at the Raiders and how they utilize Khalil Mack, or what the Texans have done with JJ Watt or what just about any team has done with a top pass rusher.
Knowing that this is the case, it’s not surprising that you would find teams adjusting on offense to try to compensate. That may mean that less priority is placed on having a premier left tackle and more priority is placed on having at least one, but preferably two, premier options on the line while everybody else has the best designation of “adequate but try to upgrade if possible.”
Let’s take a look at some notable deals that were given to offensive linemen who were eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2016, whether they stayed with their teams or switched teams. I have listed these in order of how much they
Cordy Glenn, LT: Signed a five-year, $60M contract. (APY $12M)
Russell Okung, LT: Signed to “contract within a contract” for one year at $5M with incentives, with a team option that would yield a four-year, $48M contract. (APY $10.6M on full contract)
Kelvin Beachum, LT: Signed to “contract within a contract” for one year at $5M, with a team option that would yield a four-year, $40M contract. (APY $9M on full contract)
Donald Penn, LT: Signed a two-year, $11.9M contract. (APY $5.9M)
Kelechi Osemele, LG: Signed a five-year, $58.5M contract.(APY $11.7M)
Alex Boone, LG: Signed a four-year, $26.8M contract. (APY $6.7M)
Evan Mathis, LG: Signed a one-year, $4M contract.
Alex Mack, C: Signed a five-year, $45M contract. (APY $9M)
Ben Jones, C/G: Signed a four-year, $17.5M contract. (APY $4.375M)
Stefen Wisniewski, C/G: Signed a one-year, $1.5M contract.
Jeff Allen, RG: Signed a four-year, $28M contact. (APY $7M)
Brandon Brooks, RG: Signed a five-year, $40M contract (APY $8M)
Mitchell Schwartz, RT: Signed a five-year, $33M contract. (APY $6.6M)
Donald Stephenson, RT: Signed a three-year, $14M contract. (APY $4.6M)
Andre Smith, RT: Signed a one-year, $3.5M contract.
Looking back at 2016, the only left tackle who came away with a favorable deal was Glenn, and he was franchised by the Bills and signed an extension soon after. The Okung and Beachem deals would have turned out nicely for them had they proved worthy of keeping beyond the low-cost, first-year deal, but neither one played at a level that justified the big-money years and both teams have moved on. Penn reportedly tested the market and found no suitors. Hence, it wasn’t a good year to be a left tackle.
But look at the other positions. The one who cashed in the most on deals found in free agency without getting a franchise tag was Osemele, a guard who can play left tackle, but was signed with the intent of playing as a guard. Mack, considered one of the best centers in the game, was the next FA lineman to get a favorable deal. Brooks, a right guard, got a better deal than most of the LTs did. You could even argue that Allen, Schwartz and Boone got better deals in the long run than the likes of Beachum and Penn, and Okung’s deal only looks better because of the incentives he earned.
It’s true some of the teams who handed out the deals weren’t looking for left tackles at that point, but it was clear where they truly valued diverting money on the offensive line, and that was to get the best player possible in free agency. What they do with their current players at left tackle, whether or not they are set to become free agents, remains to be seen. But last year’s spending for offensive linemen made it clear that it’s not exactly a market that’s favorable to left tackles above all others.
So what does this mean for free agency this year? It means it’s more likely the biggest contracts are going to players who aren’t left tackles, given that this is a weak year for that position and the available players all come with red flags. Right tackle might not be the position that gets rewarded the most, though, given that it’s not that strong of a field, either. But it will not surprise me if the guards who hit free agency cash in big time and a few bigger than any pending free agent tackle.
Here’s my take on what I expect the most notable free agent offensive linemen will get this year.
Kevin Zeitler, OG: You want a bold prediction for free agency? Here it is: No offensive lineman, regardless of position, is going to cash in more in free agency than Zeitler does. I am predicting he will get the most APY salary of any pending free agent. Zeitler and his agent are certain to seek an APY salary that exceeds what Osemele got last year and I am confident he’ll get it and become the highest-paid guard in the NFL. Predicted contract: Five years, $60M. (APY $12M)
Andrew Whitworth, LT: Though I do think Whitworth will approach a considerable APY salary, he’s not going to get that many years in a deal. That’s because he 35 years old and teams are going to be worried about potential decline. I would expect Whitworth and his agent will try to get the deal front loaded, though that won’t necessarily translate to a high APY salary. Predicted contract: Three years, $33M. (APY $11M)
Larry Warford, OG: Warford isn’t as talented as Zeitler but he’s just entering the prime of his career. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Warford hit it big in free agency and look to surpass the deal David DeCastro got, which averaged $10M per year. Predicted contract: Five years, $52.5M. (APY $10.5M)
T.J. Lang, OG: Once again, you can count on one of the best guards in free agency to get awarded a considerable amount of money. The only difference between Lang and the other two guards I mentioned is that he may not get as many years on a deal because he turns 30 later this year. But expect an APY salary in the double digits. Predicted contract: Four years, $40M. (APY $10M)
Russell Okung, LT: Call me somebody who is highly skeptical that Okung is going to cash in like so many people expect. Given that Okung’s strengths are in run blocking but not pass protection, there really isn’t any chance for him to approach top LT dollars. He’s going to have to settle for a deal that pays him more in line with second-tier players at the position, though I could see some incentives or escalators added to the deal that could reward with him more money down the road. But I think his deal to start won’t be as big as people think. Predicted contract: Four years, $40M. (APY $10M)
J.C. Tretter, C/G: Tretter’s positional flexibility should be appealing to teams, especially because he performed at a high level before his MCL sprain and only lost his starting job because his replacement played so well. Predicted contract: Five years, $42.5M. (APY $8.5M)
Ricky Wagner, RT: I don’t think Wagner will get a contract in line with what Lane Johnson got, given that most teams will argue the Eagles plan to move him to left tackle at some point. But I do expect him to get paid higher than what other right tackles have recently received. Consider Bryan Bulaga’s deal to be the bar Wagner will want to clear. Predicted contract: Five years, $37.5M. (APY $7.5M)
Ronald Leary, OG: Here’s another guard that I expect is going to cash in during free agency, though not quite at the level of other guards because he’ll be considered good but not one of the best at the position. Predicted contract: Four years, $28M. (APY $7M)
Nick Mangold, C: Were it not for his age, Mangold would stand a good chance of being the highest-paid center in the NFL. But given his experience and that he still appears to have plenty left in the tank, there will be teams who will covet his services. Keep in mind that the Jets mainly released him for cap reasons, rather than performance. Predicted contract: Three years, $21M. (APY $7M)
Riley Reiff, OT: Given that Reiff has played both left and right tackle in his career, some teams will be interested. But I’m not certain if he’ll fetch anything other than a short-term deal given that he’s an average talent. Predicted contract: Two years, $12M (APY $6M)
Kelvin Beachum, LT: In all likelihood, Beachum will have to settle for a one-year “prove it” deal given his struggles last season. Predicted contract: One year, $6M.
Matt Kalil, LT: Kalil is entering the same situation Beachum entered last season. He’s coming off an ACL injury and isn’t going to be coveted as he might have been otherwise. I can see a team willing to give him a deal structured like the deals that Beachum and Okung got last year, but for now, I’ll consider him another one-year “prove it” candidate. Predicted contract: One year, $6M.
Every other free agent offensive lineman is likely going to have to settle for one-year or two-year deals averaging no more than $5M per year, whether it’s because of age, injuries or subpar performance.
Regardless, I don’t see left tackle becoming the position that gets the biggest rewards. The guard market is better and that’s where I expect teams are more likely to spend their dollars. There may be a left tackle or two who cashes in, but after that, the well is likely to run dry for those players while those at other offensive line positions get the big money deals first.