Consecutive offseasons of labor uncertainties and CBA wrangling have produced a bumper crop of free agents at a number of positions for 2012. One of those positions not seeing a windfall of talent hit the open market is offensive tackle where, as ever, teams have ensured that quality players on the perimeter of the offensive line will not go free. There is still some quality available for the right team looking to take a calculated risk, but the talent that to be had either has a minimal body of work behind it or comes with red flags.
Teams towards the top end of the draft may choose to take the risk on one of the three heralded underclassmen coming out in the draft, but teams needing a tackle further down the draft order, without the ammunition to move up or with too many needs to do so, will be sifting through this tackle class looking for that diamond in the rough.
Here is a look at our Top 5 free agent tackles for the 2012 offseason:
1) Jared Gaither, San Diego Chargers
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 26
2011 Grade: +3.8
Key Stat: Only allowed three pressures, no hits and no sacks in five starts with the Chargers.
Behind the Numbers: Throughout his collegiate and pro career Gaither has never been short on talent and quality performances, but off field red flags have prevented teams from giving him a go and two teams have cut their losses with him in the last twelve months. However, when a team puts their faith in him and allows him to play his favored left tackle spot, the results are undeniably outstanding. On sheer talent alone, Gaither has the potential to be one of the five best tackles in the league and he proved that in his five-week stretch with San Diego along with a 2009 season where he was our third-ranked left tackle, behind only Jake Long and Joe Thomas, in pass protection. Gaither shouldn’t be earning top dollar this offseason because of the off-field and commitment concerns, but if someone signs him and trusts him, they will be getting the bargain of the offseason.
2) Demetrius Bell, Buffalo Bills
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 28
2011 Grade: +6.8
Key Stat: Allowed pressure only once every 28 pass plays in 2011, up from 13.6 in 2010.
Behind the Number: Playing under a restricted free agent tag in 2011, Bell looked to be putting together the classic “contract season” performance until it was curtailed by injury. To his credit, Bell didn’t slip into poor performances of the past in a three-game stint at the end of the season, but is 401 snaps of true quality enough for a team to invest in him long term? Bell was Jason Peters’ replacement after he bolted for Philadelphia, but he was slow to repay the Bills’ faith in him. He has taken large strides since his first season as a starter in 2009 drastically reducing his pressures allowed and penalties conceded through 2010 and 2011. Another big stride in 2012 would see Bell join the league’s Top 10 left tackles. If multiple teams see that as a real possibility Bell’s market value could rise when free agency opens.
3) Jeff Backus, Detroit Lions
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 34
2011 Grade: -2.1
Key Stat: Conceded five of his seven sacks in the first six weeks of the 2011 season.
Behind the Numbers: Backus’ regular season start streak now stands at 176 and he finally got to play in a playoff game this season. His value lies largely with the Lions who he has played each of those 176 regular season games with. Backus has played in pass-heavy offenses for much of the second half of his career now under Mike Martz and Scott Linehan’s play calling and his average pass protection isn’t necessarily a great fit with Detroit, but on a short term deal the two parties will at least know what to expect from each other. At his age, Backus may hold minimal value to other teams and it seems unlikely he will remain unsigned long enough to be picked up as a stop gap for other teams who fail to fill a hole at left tackle early in free agency or during the draft.
4) Anthony Collins, Cincinnati Bengals
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 26
2011 Grade: +4.3
Key Stat: In four complete games in the last two seasons has allowed only three pressures.
Behind the Numbers: That Collins ranks fourth among free agency tackles shows the depth, or lack thereof, in this tackle class. That is not to say that Collins isn’t a capable player, but with only five starts in the last two seasons, one of which saw him play only 14 snaps, his body of work is somewhat lacking. However Collins’ quality of play in those starts has been extremely impressive and, but for a No. 5 overall pick sitting above him on the depth chart demanding time to bed in, might have seen him earn more playing time. In his only extended stretch as a starter, 13 straight starts from Week 12 2008 to Week 9 2009, Collins proved to be an adequate starter and a team looking to fill a gap for the short term could get a pleasant surprise in Collins who with four years of experience at age 26 this season has plenty of tread left on his tires.
5) Vernon Carey, Miami Dolphins
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 31
2011 Grade: -4.1 (at right guard)
Key Stat: Miami running backs averaged 5.0 yards per carry off Carey’s outside shoulder this season.
Behind the Numbers: At the back end of our Top 5 comes a Vernon Carey who slid back inside to guard this season and unfortunately returned to his prior, disappointing, level of play there. At 31 Carey is at the age where teams may not want to move him back outside to tackle, but he has undoubtedly played the best football of his career there for Miami. The Dolphins thought they could upgrade their right side by pairing Carey with Marc Colombo, but that failed spectacularly with Colombo playing as poorly for Miami as he did in Dallas and Carey failing to bring his right tackle level of play in to guard. With a shallow tackle class, someone may just take a flier on Carey to re-discover his 2008 and 2009 form at tackle that saw him rank as our fourth-best right tackle in 2008 and our third-best in 2009.
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