Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Offensive Tackles
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
We’re halfway through our Ranking the 2014 Free Agents series (having been through the QBs, RBs, WRs as well as the LBs, edge rushers and interior D-linemen) and we’ve made it to the priciest piece of the offensive line. Offensive tackles earn some of the biggest paydays in free agency, with last year’s second-ranked free agent tackle, Jake Long, taking home a 4-year contract averaging $9m per year. That doesn’t mean that teams can’t find good value, on display in Sebastian Vollmer’s (4 years, $16.7m), King Dunlap’s (2 years, $3.9m) contracts.
Here are the Top 10 free agent tackles to watch this time around.
1. Eugene Monroe – Re-signs with Baltimore
2013 Grade: +20.4
2013 Snaps: 1,069
A combination of youth, consistency, balance, and upside lands Eugene Monroe in the top spot in the 2014 market. With other left tackles on the market featuring one flaw or another, be it age, injury, or an off season, Monroe stands out. After taking over Baltimore’s left tackle position in Week 6, he posted 11 straight positively-graded games. In that stretch, he had a red grade for run or pass blocking just twice, a -1.9 in run blocking against one of the better run defenders in Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson, and a -1.7 in pass blocking against Julius Peppers’ ferocious pass rush. Outside of those blips, Monroe was a model of consistency in 2013.
That consistency is nothing new for 2009’s eighth overall selection, who really came into his own in 2011. In his last three seasons, he’s graded positively for both run blocking and pass blocking, and his overall grade hasn’t dropped below +20.0. While the early-season move to Baltimore landed Monroe on a better team than he came from, he wasn’t necessarily in a better offensive line, often next to the struggling A.Q. Shipley. His positive performance at left tackle includes solid play on an island, and his performances are trending in the right direction. This 26-year-old has a lot to offer a blindside-needy team in 2014.
2. Branden Albert – Signs with Miami
2013 Grade: +11.5
2013 Snaps: 883
Albert finds himself in a similar bucket with Monroe. Both are known quantities at left tackle with strong track records, though Albert’s best seasons don’t quite measure up to Monroe’s last three. He’s also a year and a half older, missed time with a knee injury late last season, and had issues with a back injury the year prior. Still, he was a hot commodity last April before the Chiefs franchised him and Albert will return to the free agent market where he last year reportedly sought a $9 million-per-year deal. That was the biggest free agent acquisition last year at tackle.
If front offices evaluated Albert’s performance the same way we did, he might have a tough time quite reaching that dollar figure. He graded negatively in run blocking in 2013, just as he did in 2012, and it’s an area of his game that has never been dominant, though it hasn’t been terrible either. Mostly solid in pass protection, Albert only gave up four sacks in 555 pass blocking snaps in the quick-attack Andy Reid offense, but pass blocking is clearly his forte. With nine regular season penalties, Albert had the second-worst penalty grade for tackles in 2013, a consistent mark against him that potential suitors should note in this free agency period.
3. Jared Veldheer – Signs with Arizona
2013 Grade: -5.5
2013 Snaps: 335
Limited by a triceps tear and trip to the injured reserve in 2013, Veldheer clearly wasn’t at his best in four late games. Prior 2013, though, he missed just one snap in the 2011 and 2012 seasons combined and his track record doesn’t suggest that he’ll be a major injury risk going forward. Veldheer turns 27 in October and is actually a few months younger than Monroe, but continues the trend of youth at the top of this list. Like Albert and Monroe, Veldheer is something of a known quantity, but didn’t show that he was in good form late in the season.
In a recent radio interview, he talked about a preference for a long-term deal, and hopes to avoid the franchise tag. Oakland has that option, of course, but if they choose to let him walk, the third-round pick should have plenty of options on the open market. In 2012, Veldheer’s 96.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency ranked 12th among tackles, and while pass blocking was his strongest suit last year, he had the third-best run blocking grade among left tackles in 2011. He reined in the penalties in 2012, but had six in just 335 snaps in 2013. Like Albert, that’s an area to watch for prospective teams.
4. Jordan Gross – Announces his Retirement
2013 Grade: +33.3
2013 Snaps: 1,071
Jordan Gross is the first player on this list with more than one long-term deal in his history. The veteran left tackle is the highest-graded on the list, but he’s also the oldest and there’s got to be some concern that he’s running out of plateau before a steep cliff. Prior to the 2013 season, Gross had five straight positively-graded seasons for Carolina, including two better than +20.0. He’s ranked in the top 12 for tackles in three of the last four seasons, and was 20th in the other.
All of that built up to an excellent 2013 campaign, which saw him finish third on the offensive tackle leaderboard. Gross’s previously balanced blocking profile favored pass blocking in 2013, as his 95.8 Pass Blocking Efficiency was good for 10th in the league. He still finished as a positive run blocker, though that was to a slightly lesser extent than years prior, and his single penalty on the season led to the second best penalty grade among tackles. The big question with Gross comes down to age. He has consistently performed well and is coming off a career year, but no one knows when that cliff is coming.
5. Anthony Collins – Signs with Tampa Bay
2013 Grade: +16.3
2013 Snaps: 673
Replacing one of the best pass blockers in the NFL at left tackle for the Bengals this year, when injuries forced an offensive line shuffle, Anthony Collins more than held his own in 673 snaps. Collins signed a two-year extension with the Bengals in 2011 after a very good 262 snap campaign didn’t generate a ton of interest league-wide. He hardly saw the field in 2012, stuck behind Andre Smith and Whitworth on the depth chart, but has consistently been a good-to-great pass blocker when he’s seen the field.
In 2013, Collins didn’t give up a sack and allowed a total of 14 pressures on 389 pass blocking snaps. He doesn’t qualify for the regular season Pass Blocking Efficiency leaderboard, but when you lower the snap threshold to 25% of the top tackle’s snap count, Collins is atop the list with a 97.2 score, besting Denver’s Orlando Franklin. The question mark is run blocking and endurance. He’s never shown much punch as a run blocker, and 673 is the most snaps he’s ever played in a season as a career backup. Still, the pass blocking display in 2013 is bound to be attractive for a team that needs a starting left tackle with the versatility and experience to play on the right side as well.
6. Rodger Saffold – Signs with St. Louis
2013 Grade: +6.7
2013 Snaps: 557
The youngest player on this list, Rodger Saffold has been in and out of the St. Louis starting lineup since taking 1,068 snaps, the most he’s played in a season, in his rookie year. Since then, it has been a rollercoaster ride for Saffold who has posted streaks of dominant run blocking and pass blocking at different points in his career. In 557 2013 snaps, Saffold strung together a five game stretch with four green run blocking grades and didn’t give up a sack all season, though he did allow 14 pressures in 369 pass blocking snaps. Looking back to 2012, he posted a mostly great season in pass protection, though he missed time due to injury.
Despite tantalizing potential mixed with spells of brilliance in all facets of offensive tackle play, Saffold comes with an injury history that led the Rams to sign Jake Long last winter. He also has a record of inconsistent play and, while he’s shown clear production, needs to put it altogether at the same time to be a franchise left tackle. At 25, he’ll certainly draw interest from an offensive line coach eager to put all the pieces together.
7. Zach Strief
2013 Grade: +28.9
2013 Snaps: 1,213
Zach Strief could resemble Anthony Collins’ best-case future (if Collins was a right tackle). After playing in a backup role for the Saints for five seasons, Strief burst onto the scene in 2011 after missing five games with an injury. In the last 10 games he played (including the playoffs) in 2011, Strief posted a +14.1 pass blocking grade to go with a solid run blocking performance and generally penalty-free play. 2012 was a rough year for Strief and the Saints in general, but like the rest of the team he returned to form in 2013 and finished the year as our top right tackle.
With a similar set of strengths to Collins, Strief finished the year with our third highest pass blocking score for any tackle, but he was right in the middle of the pack when it came to run blocking. He played the most snaps of his career in 2013, but has had his share of injury issues and isn’t exactly a spring chicken, turning 31 in September. The seventh round Northwestern product will surely attract teams looking for stability at right tackle given his solid pass protection for one of the most prolific passing offenses in the NFL in recent years.
8. Austin Howard – Signs with Oakland
2013 Grade: -1.0
2013 Snaps: 1,071
The Jets have reportedly initiated contract talks with Austin Howard with the goal of re-signing him before free agency opens up. If he makes it to the market, Howard will be an interesting player for teams to consider. He’s relatively young and doesn’t have much wear on the tires as an undrafted free agent from Northern Iowa. He joined the Jets in 2012, acquired via the Ravens’ practice squad, and has hardly missed a snap in two years starting at right tackle in New York.
Terribly inconsistent in 2013, Howard’s Jets debut in 2012 featured a lot of very good run blocking (+9.6) mixed in with below average pass blocking (-5.1). He gave up 10 sacks and 41 more pressures in his first season as a full-time starter. In 2013, he improved his pass blocking and only gave up two sacks to go with 36 pressures, finishing with a +1.9 pass blocking grade, but his run blocking made it into the green just three times, against six in the red. He has been fairly strong in the penalty category, and may have some upside left with only two seasons of starting under his belt, but his performance isn’t up to snuff with those ahead of him on this list.
9. Tyson Clabo
2013 Grade: -0.8
2013 Snaps: 962
Tyson Clabo, another undrafted free agent, started for the Falcons at right tackle for seven years before joining the Dolphins on a one-year contract last spring. In Miami he seemingly struggled to acclimate to his new surroundings, with four red games in his first six. He hardly managed a positive run blocking grade all year, but did put together a great run of pass blocking down the stretch.
Prior to his stint with the Dolphins, there was every reason to believe Clabo was an attractive option as a free agent. In Atlanta, he was a plus pass protector with several years of consistently above average run blocking. The concern with Clabo has to be age, as he’ll turn 33 in October and his drop-off in play last year might be attributable to the proverbial cliff at the end of athletic careers.
10. Michael Oher – Signs with Tennessee
2013 Grade: -12.6
2013 Snaps: 1,125
The main character of “The Blind Side” has wrapped up his five-year rookie contract with the Ravens and all indications are that he’ll test the market. While he’s got youth on his side and will enter the 2014 season at age 28, he hasn’t put together a consistently good season since his rookie campaign. That’s ultimately what makes him the odd man out on this list as he finds himself as Eugene Monroe’s opposite bookend in a new sense.
Oher has never missed significant time due to injury, but, since a dominant rookie year that saw him finish as the 15th overall tackle in our rankings, he hasn’t put it all together again. Recent trends suggest that he’s a much stronger pass blocker (coming in around league average) than run blocker. In 2013, his -17.0 run blocking grade was the worst for tackles with at least 50% of their team’s snaps. Oher has name recognition, but unless a coaching staff thinks they can restore him to his former glory, he won’t be as attractive as some of the other men on this list in free agency.
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