These are the men charged with the critical tasks of opening holes for the running game and giving the quarterback time to throw.
Because of their importance, and because – outside of the quarterback position — the line may be the hardest to fill and the toughest to upgrade, we’re seeing teams putting an emphasis on retaining linemen in free agency (click here for a complete master list of free agents).
Adding to the supply-and-demand problem, 2010 wasn’t exactly the greatest year for offensive linemen, offensive tackles in particular. Injuries to some of the elite tackles hurt and made more apparent the lack of real top talent at the spot.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any quality out there in the free agent market. There are a number of players who deserve an opportunity to start for a team, and there’s even that rarest of rare things: a possible franchise left tackle …
1. Jared Gaither, Baltimore Ravens
Age as of September 1st 2011: 25
2010 Grade: n/a
Key Stat: In 2009 gave up just 12 QB disruptions in 13 starts.
Behind The Numbers: There are concerns over the injury that kept him out of 2010 and some rumored character flaws, but when he plays, just how good is Gaither? Better than most realized — the Ravens line took a huge hit with him out of it. The former Terps tackle gives up more penalties than you’d like, but has always got the job done with his run blocking. The only possible franchise left tackle available.
2. Willie Colon, Pittsburgh Steelers
Age as of September 1st 2011: 28
2010 Grade: n/a
Key Stat: Averaged less than one pressure allowed per game in 2009.
Behind The Numbers: A forgotten Steeler by some, Colon was coming off a career 2009 where he finished the season as our top ranked right tackle. A decent run blocker, Colon excelled with his pass blocking. Colon isn’t quite a top tackle, but he’s got the tools to be. The injury probably hurt his value enough that the Steelers remain the best option for him.
3. Matt Light, New England Patriots
Age as of September 1st 2011: 33
2010 Grade: +2.1
Key Stat: Allowed seven regular season sacks.
Behind The Numbers: Watching Light run block (well) and pass block (poorly) was a bit of a surprise considering the Patriots’ rep as a passing offense. Not the player he once was, he’s still a more than able run blocker that does a good job of getting to the second level. Ideal situation would see him return to New England, but with Sebastian Vollmer better on the left side, will the Patriots want that?
4. Doug Free, Dallas Cowboys
Age as of September 1st 2011: 27
2010 Grade: +17.9
Key Stat: Gave up 11 penalties.
Behind The Numbers: After impressing at right tackle, it was always going to be a big leap for Free to move over to the left side. While he wasn’t perfect (11 penalties), Free did a good job in pass protection and was excellent with his run blocking. He did a particularly good job when it came to blocking defensive lineman inside, finishing the year with our highest rated run blocking grade for a tackle.
5. Tyson Clabo, Atlanta Falcons
Age as of September 1st 2011: 29
2010 Grade: +10.8
Key Stat: Gave up just one penalty on the year.
Behind The Numbers: Not the greatest athlete, Clabo is one of a host of Falcons linemen who are better for the unit they are in. Makes the most of his ability, and did a good job protecting his quarterback. You’d still like to see a right tackle more imposing in the run game on a consistent basis.
6. Ryan Harris, Denver Broncos
Age as of September 1st 2011: 26
2010 Grade: -0.9
Key Stat: Gave up just three sacks on the year.
Behind The Numbers: Rushed back into the lineup too soon, it took Harris until the second half of the season to really find his form. Harris isn’t exactly an elite tackle, but he does a solid enough job. The problem is, he’s missed significant time with injury the past two years, and it has affected his performance. He’d upgrade plenty of right tackle spots by virtue of being average.
7. Sean Locklear, Seattle Seahawks
Age as of September 1st 2011: 30
2010 Grade: +2.0
Key Stat: Our highest rated RT in pass blocking.
Behind The Numbers: That above tells it all. Locklear had a great year with his pass blocking, but struggled and then some with his run blocking. In 2009 he did play left tackle, and actually did a decent enough job that makes you think he could provide some relief to a LT needy team. There are certainly worse pass protectors out there.
8. Brandon Keith, Arizona Cardinals
Age as of September 1st 2011: 26
2010 Grade: -2.0
Key Stat: Gave up six sacks in 9 starts.
Behind The Numbers: When you get this far down the list, things aren’t looking pretty. A season ending injury ‘saved’ Keith’s numbers from looking any worse, but the problem for him revolve around consistency. A capable run blocker, Keith flashed competence in protecting his quarterback with two perfect games in pass pro, but against top ends like Ray Edwards, he just wasn’t up to the task.
9. Langston Walker, Oakland Raiders
Age as of September 1st 2011: 31
2010 Grade: -3.6
Key Stat: Gave up 44 QB disruptions on the year.
Behind The Numbers: The complete opposite to Sean Locklear, and a caricature of the right tackle spot. A real mauler when your team is running the ball, but lacks the athleticism to go toe to toe with even mediocre pass rushers. Walker is a good guy to have as depth, but he’s a liability whenever your QB is dropping back.
10. Barry Sims, San Francisco 49ers
Age as of September 1st 2011: 36
2010 Grade: +1.6
Key Stat: Has given up five sacks in the past two years while starting 14 games.
Behind The Numbers: At his age, Sims isn’t anything more than a stop-gap or insurance policy, but you plug him in and he does a serviceable job. He won’t do anything special with his run blocking, and won’t get beaten all too often with his pass blocking.