Top end talent at guard is another position where the 2012 free agent class has hit the jackpot. Our two top-graded guards from 2011 are set to hit the open market and a former first round pick who has delivered on some of that promise also more than likely to reach the open market. After the Top 3, proven quality ebbs away a little, but there is quality to be found deep in the guard class if teams look in the right place and pay the right price.
Recent seasons have seen some obscene contracts handed out to guards and those with the right profile this offseason could be seeing dollar signs, Looney Tunes style, with some of the contracts that have been handed out since Alan Faneca’s first big deal transformed a traditionally low-paid position. Are those really top draw contracts such as Jahri Evans’ good value? Who knows, but the presence of those big deals could see the two best guard pairings in the league, in Baltimore and New Orleans, split this offseason as the second half of each looks for a big payday.
1) Carl Nicks, New Orleans Saints
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 29
2011 Grade: +28.4
Key Stat: Has allowed only 1.2 pressures per game since claiming a starting role in Week 4 of the 2008 season.
Behind the Numbers: Since claiming a starting role for the Saints, Nicks has never ranked outside of the Top 15 of our guard rankings, never outside the Top 4 in the last three years and never outside the Top 2 in the last two seasons. Such a consistently high level of play saw Jahri Evans break the bank with the Saints and Nicks would be more than within his rights to go looking for a similar payday. However, teams would be expecting Nicks to maintain his level of play where Evans has allowed his to slip a little. The Saints averaged 5.4 yards per carry off left guard last season, fifth-best in the league and Nicks was our second-ranked guard in pass protection. That high a level of play on such a consistent basis should see Nicks get snapped up on a big deal early in free agency. Can the Saints keep hold of all of their free agents?
2) Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 30
2011 Grade: +34.6
Key Stat: In 22 starts, has only finished a game with a negative overall grade once.
Behind the Numbers: That negatively-graded game was in Week 9 of the 2009 season, a game he left after 15 snaps in Baltimore due to an ankle injury. Whenever Mathis has been allowed to start, he has always impressed. Stuck in a baffling rotation with Nate Livings in Cincinnati, his quality was hidden somewhat, but when given a chance by Howard Mudd and the Eagles this season he ran with it. He and Jason Peters formed the best left side in football in 2011. This was Mathis’ first season approaching sixteen starts, he fell one short, so the market may still be limited for him in terms of a body of work supporting a big contract. That said, he has proven in two stops now to be one of the better guards in the league and for a team not looking to break the bank for a quality guard, Mathis should be top of their list.
3) Ben Grubbs, Baltimore Ravens
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 28
2011 Grade: +1.4
Key Stat: Had five straight games graded +1.3 or better from Week 13 to Week 17 this season.
Behind the Numbers: After being that rarity of an interior offensive lineman drafted in the first round, Grubbs has provided the Ravens with solid play on a consistent basis, but hasn’t quite hit the high notes that a first round guard might have been expected to. Grubbs has ranked on the fringes of the Top 10 of our guard rankings each of the last three years, but has never got higher than ninth in 2010. Grubbs’ value to the Ravens was on display early this season when Andre Gurode stepped in and made it clear the Ravens missed Grubbs in both the run and pass games. Having paid Marshal Yanda good money last year, can the Ravens tie down another guard to with question marks at tackle and Matt Birk reaching the end of his career?
4) Chad Rinehart, Buffalo Bills
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 27
2011 Grade: +12.4
Key Stat: Allowed zero sacks and only two hits this season, only one guard conceded less in as many games.
Behind the Numbers: This season at times felt like the Buffalo Bills had a conveyor belt churning out quality guards, each time a guard went down or was forced to play a different position, someone stepped in to the breach and played at a quality level. The Bills had three guards play in excess of 400 snaps and they all graded above +5.0 overall, two of them hit restricted free agency this year. Rinehart failed to make an impact on his first career stop in Washington, but with his first chance to start for an extended period, he delivered on the potential that made him a third-round selection out of Northern Iowa back in 2008. He is a better pass protector than run blocker, with a trio of negatively-graded run blocking games in the last seven weeks of the season raising some concerns. The Bills could put any doubt on Rinehart to bed with a high tender which would see them return a strong interior with Rinehart lining up next to Eric Wood and Andy Levitre.
5) Geoff Schwartz, Carolina Panthers
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 26
2011 Grade: N/A (+12.3 in 2010 at guard & tackle)
Key Stat: Gave up pressure once every 27.9 pass plays after moving to guard in Week 7 of 2010
Behind the Numbers: After missing the entire 2011 season through injury, Schwartz may see a limited market this offseason as teams take a view of “what have you done for me lately”. However, Schwartz’s versatility and quality at a number of positions may just pique the interest of a team as one of the more valuable offensive line free agents–depending upon his rehab. Schwartz played both right tackle and right guard for the Panthers in 2010 and excelled in both spots in spite of only having just the bye week to bed in at right guard after playing the first five weeks at tackle. Linemen who can swing between positions or sides of the line are extremely valuable to teams, but too often they are a jack of all trades and master of none. In 2010, Schwartz showed the ability to play both spots to a high level. Yielding only one pressure to the Giants in his first start at tackle while putting in enough quality work at guard after the bye week to rank 15th in our guard rankings for 2010. Whether at guard, tackle, or both, Schwartz has plenty to offer any team that signs him this summer.
6) Jake Scott, Tennessee Titans
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 31
2011 Grade: +11.8
Key Stat: Has allowed only five sacks and 12 hits in four seasons with the Titans.
Behind the Numbers: There is little doubt that this season Scott–and the entire Titans offensive line–saw their pass protection statistics benefit from a passing game predicated on getting the ball out of Matt Hasselbeck’s hands quickly. The consistency of Scott’s pass protection, though, is sure to get him some free agency attention if the Titans instead look to upgrade their run blocking in an attempt to spark Chris Johnson back to life in 2012. Scott will certainly have questions to answer over his run blocking in 2010 with Chris Johnson’s stats dropping, but Johnson did average 4.7 ypc off right guard this year, better than the league average of 4.6, just. Brian Waters showed the value of quality pass-protecting guards with an outstanding season in New England. A team looking to Scott to provide similar level of play will be hoping he can translate those stats to a team with slightly slower-developing pass plays.
7) Mike Brisiel, Houston Texans
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 29
2011 Grade: -5.8
Key Stat: Arian Foster and Ben Tate averaged 5.9 yards per carry off right guard this season.
Behind the Numbers: If you ever play in a zone scheme as an offensive lineman, public and media perception seemingly locks you permanently in to that scheme and–with Brisiel being outplayed by his injury replacement, Antoine Caldwell–he will likely be looking to those teams as a landing spot if he doesn’t stay to fight for his job in Houston. The combined efforts of Caldwell and Brisiel saw Texans’ running backs pick up 5.5 yards per carry (fifth-best in the league) off right guard this season, but it’s fair to say the backs played their part in that. Brisiel’s performance in the playoffs will raise some eyebrows, particularly in the Texans’ defeat in Baltimore where he struggled with the Ravens’ defense, giving up four tackles at or close to the line of scrimmage.
8 ) Chilo Rachal, San Francisco 49ers
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 26
2011 Grade: -8.9
Key Stat: Penalized four times in three starts before ceding his starting job to Adam Snyder in Week 4.
Behind the Numbers: After a breakout season in 2010, Rachal broke to pieces in 2011. Following a dreadful start to the season, he was yanked from the starting lineup for Adam Snyder (of all people) and he failed to unseat him the rest of the way. After a solid 2010, his contract season should have seen Rachal establish himself as one of the better guards in the league and earn himself a spot in the Top 5, at least, of this list. As it happened, Rachal returned to his disappointing early-season form, failing to deliver on his great promise. Rachal has talent and he shows it on occasion but there are simply too many mistakes from him and that the 49ers felt that the consistently poor Adam Snyder was a safer option speaks volumes. That they preferred a known weak point to Rachal’s inconsistency leaves question marks over Rachal. He has the potential to be a bargain pick-up who delivers finally on his potential, but any team offering him a good amount of money and years will be taking a serious risk.
9) Bobbie Williams, Cincinnati Bengals
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 35
2011 Grade: +1.9
Key Stat: Only managed 575 snaps this season due to injuries and suspension.
Behind the Numbers: We round out our Top 10 list at guard with a couple of guys who simply have to answer the question, how much have you got left in the tank? We start with Bobbie Williams who, after a late season ankle injury, only going on injured reserve in mid-December, is unlikely to sign early in the offseason. Undoubtedly entering the twilight of his career, Williams may still have a year or two left in the tank and even in limited game time this season, showed that quality. He graded out as our 10th-best run blocker in a season where most guards struggled in this regard. The Bengals proved unable to adequately replace him this season with both Mike McGlynn and Clint Boling struggling, Williams still has value to them and would be a decent stop gap for a number of teams.
10) Leonard Davis, Detroit Lions
Age as of 1st September, 2012: 33
2011 Grade: N/A (+6.7 in 2010 with Dallas)
Key Stat: Cowboy backs averaged 5.0 yards per carry off right guard in 2010.
Behind the Numbers: After playing zero snaps as a late season pick up for the Lions, Davis is a wildcard in this list but it is at least worth kicking the tires to see what he has left. Davis was still a solid run blocker when he left Dallas and to see him drop off of the radar completely was somewhat of a surprise. Moving Kyle Kosier to right guard did not adequately replace Davis’ presence on that line. If Davis still has the desire to return, the lack of quality run-blocking guards in the league (on the evidence of last season) should see him garner at least some interest on a one-year deal. Teams are more and more switching to pass heavy attacks and Davis’s propensity to give up pressure in gluts, though he far from struggles in pass protection, may see his field narrowed. But, as a run blocker and turning 34 just before the season starts, Davis should still have some tread left on the tires.
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