Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Guards
The next stop in our tour of free agent Top 10s is with the guards and Mike Renner offers up the options to watch.
Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Guards
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.
Marching through our ‘Ranking the 2014 Free Agents’ series we’ve been through most of the offense (QBs, RBs, WRs, and OTs) and we’ll be finishing up the defense later today (having done the LBs, edge rushers, interior D-linemen, and CB already), but before we get there it’s time to check out the best of the free agent guards.
1. Geoff Schwartz – Signs with the New York Giants
2013 Grade: +18.6
2013 Snaps: 549
Summary: You would be hard pressed to find a larger interior lineman than the 6-foot-6, 340-pound mountain that is Geoff Schwartz. You’d also be hard pressed to find a better bargain at the position last season. The veteran guard came over from Minnesota in the offseason on a one-year, $700k contract and played at an elite level when given the chance. While there are no ’big name’ guards hitting free agency, Schwartz has played as well as any not named Evan Mathis on a per-snap basis the last two years. The Oregon product has an overall grade of +24.1 in 792 snaps (full season is typically 1000+ snaps) since he missed the whole 2011 season with a hip injury.
After filling in at left and right guard early in the season, Schwartz finally took over as the full time right guard in Week 11 at Denver. He never ended up giving the job back to teammate Jon Asamoah and Schwartz was predictably brilliant down the stretch. He started the last seven games of the season and compiled an overall grade of +14.4. While he had a superb year in pass protection with a pass blocking efficiency of 97.3 (ranked 11th), Schwartz’ calling card is his run blocking. He has elite power at the point of attack, but he also rarely gets beat cleanly. He had the sixth-lowest percentage of run snaps that took a downgrade among all guards. At 28 years old, Schwartz looks to be the prize of this year’s free agent guard class.
2. Jon Asamoah – Signs with Atlanta
2013 Grade: +7.9
2013 Snaps: 673
Summary: Asamoah may have played the same right guard position as Schwartz this season, but the two are on complete opposite sides of the physical spectrum. Asamoah is a relatively svelte 6-foot-4, 305-pounds, but his size hasn’t limited his performance in the running game. The Illinois product moves well laterally and his agility has allowed him to be an effective run blocker in the Chiefs’ zone-heavy scheme the past four seasons. He’s finished the last two seasons with positive run blocking grades overall.
While Asamoah can hold his own in the running game, his real value is in pass protection. He’s finished in the Top 10 in Pass Blocking Efficiency two of the last three seasons. The right guard has exceptionally quick feet and hands that he uses to mirror defenders movements. Asamoah may have gotten benched after he injured his shoulder diving in pass protection during Kansas City’s Week 11 game at Denver, but it was through little fault of his own. The Chiefs’ coaching staff just thought, like we also do, that Schwartz was the better of the two. The benching may have hurt his earning potential, but it didn’t do anything to change my opinion of the 26-year-old free agent who could be a difference-maker in whichever city he ends up.
3. Travelle Wharton
2013 Grade: +20.5
2013 Snaps: 851
Summary: Travelle Wharton has been a starter ever since he came into the league in 2004. At 32 years old last offseason and fresh of an ACL surgery, it was unclear if he could fulfill that role. He quickly put any doubts to rest and not only did Wharton win the starting job in Carolina, but he was also PFF’s third-ranked left guard for the season and had his best season in our six years of grading. Wharton had a balanced year performance-wise with the 13th-ranked Pass Blocking Efficiency rating (97.2) and seventh-ranked run blocking grade (+11.1).
Wharton will turn 33 in May. Recently we’ve seen guards like Brian Waters and Steve Hutchinson play well in their 33/34-year-old seasons. Neither was exceptional beyond that, though. One has to expect Wharton will see a healthy bump to his $1.1m salary from last season, even if he only gets a one- or two-year deal.
4. Zane Beadles – Signs with Jacksonville
2013 Grade: -5.7
2013 Snaps: 1223
Summary: This is where the list deviates from sure-fire starters to guys who will be upgrades on teams in need. Zane Beadles will be an attractive option to many teams that are struggling on the interior. The Broncos’ left guard was drafted highly(second round, 45th overall), started all four years, and made a pro bowl. That’s usually the recipe for a lucrative deal, it’s just that Beadles will have to improve drastically to live up to such a contract. PFF has never seen Beadles as much more than an adequate run blocker and below average pass blocker. In his pro bowl year of 2012 he was our 17th-ranked guard with a +10.1 grade, but that was his only positively graded effort in his four seasons.
This past season he had the 49th-best Pass Blocking Efficiency among guards (95.5) despite playing in front of the quarterback with the quickest average time to throw in the NFL. In 2011, before Peyton Manning got to Denver, Beadles had the second-worst Pass Blocking Efficiency mark in the league (93.4). Beadles has value in the run game, though, with a +2.9 run blocking grade the past two seasons. How his contract compares to Schwartz and Asamoah’s will be something to keep an eye on.
5. Willie Colon
2012 Grade: -1.1
2012 Snaps: 1060
Summary: At 30 years old, Willie Colon isn’t too far removed from his dominant years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He graded out as the sixth-best and the top right tackle in 2008 and 2009, respectively. A torn achilles and a torn bicep cost him the 2010 and 2011 seasons and prompted a switch from tackle to guard. Since then he just hasn’t been the same elite player, but his performance in pass protection still has immense value. This past season he had the seventh-best Pass Blocking Efficiency among all guards at 97.5 and the season before he had the 18th-best at 97.2. Colon still has a penalty problem that will drive coaches and fans alike insane (49 in his last four full seasons), but his performance of late is still worth the headache.
6. Kevin Boothe
2013 Grade: -11.3
2013 Snaps: 1037
Summary: Last season Kevin Boothe was coming off his best year PFF has seen from him and we ranked him as our seventh-best guard available. After getting a one-year deal for just $905k, Boothe is back on this list at No. 6. That bump is due solely to the talent in this year’s free agent pool and not with any improvement in Boothe’s game, though. The eight-year veteran struggled all season at both center (430 snaps) and left guard (607 snaps). His Pass Blocking Efficiency of 96.0 was good enough for 40th among all guards while his run blocking was even worse at -12.5 (55th). Boothe is still one year removed from quality guard play, though, and in that season he didn’t have to worry about switching back and forth between positions. At 30 years old, Boothe could likely be had again for cheap and would be a solid backup or swing starter for some teams.
7. Chad Rinehart – Re-signs with San Diego
2013 Grade: -2.4
2013 Snaps: 684
Summary: Chad Rinehart might be the most intriguing prospect on this list along with Shelley Smith. The reason being that in Rinehart’s six-year career, he has only had one full season and in that season he was superb. In 2011, Rinehart’s last season in Buffalo, he played 868 snaps and finished with a +16.1 grade overall. The three years prior he played 436 snaps for a grade of +7.1 and the year after just 170 snaps for a grade of +3.4. That brings us to this year where Rinehart finally got his chance to start again. He was doing alright through a couple of weeks until he injured his toe in Week 3 and missed the next six weeks. Rinehart came back and played some solid football between left and right guard with a grade of +3.9 over the final 10 games including the playoffs. It wasn’t quite the same level as 2011, but after missing significant time with a toe injury, it was still fairly impressive. It’s doubtful that anyone gives Rinehart a long-term deal with still so few snaps under his belt and the 29 year old may opt for another one-year contract like he did last offseason.
8. Charlie Johnson
2013 Grade: -5.4
2013 Snaps: 1003
Summary: Johnson may have graded out better than Kevin Boothe last season, but he drops two spots behind Booth because he’s never proven he could put together a full season of above average football. Johnson has started each of the six years PFF has been grading players and his highest grade to date was +0.1 in 2010. That grade came as a left tackle in Indianapolis. Johnson moved to guard in the 2012 season and had grades of -9.2 and -5.4 with both his run and pass grades being negative each season.
Johnson has two big things going for him, though, the first being that he’s a known commodity. In the last four seasons -9.2 was his lowest grade so teams can expect a consistent level of play. Even though it’s a negative, that just means it’s below average and still offers value to teams with dreadful guards. The second thing is that Johnson has the ability to play guard or tackle. Many teams love versatility in their lineman and his performance was such at tackle that it might not be a bad idea to move him back there.
9. Shelley Smith – Signs with Miami
2013 Grade: +7.0
2013 Snaps: 371
Summary: I mentioned earlier that Shelley Smith, who is only 26 and heading into his fifth year, is one of the most intriguing players on this list. I’ve written here before that you rarely, if at all, see average or below average players put up extraordinary stretches or have dominant single games. This is especially true on the lines. When you see something like that it’s usually a signal of more things to come. In Smith’s 371 snaps this season he put up a run blocking grade of +12.3. He had the fifth-highest percentage of run snaps grade positively among all guards. Those kinds of numbers are too impressive to just be a fluke. The Rams’ guard plays with great leverage at 6-foot-3 and was a terror pulling all year. The only problem is in Smith’s 731 career snaps he has a pass blocking grade of -10.1. A lot of teams aren’t willing to sacrifice that much pass protection for a good run blocker and Smith could have a tough time winning a starting job wherever he goes.
10. Mike Pollak – Re-signs in Cincinnati
2013 Grade: +4.9
2013 Snaps: 374
Summary: Rounding out the Top 10 is another former Colt who made his way through Carolina and then Cincinnati the last couple years, Mike Pollak. Drafted in 2008 in the second round out of Arizona St., Pollak played 2,727 snaps in four seasons with the Colts, grading out at +6.2 overall in the latter two. He would go on and sign a one-year deal with Carolina in 2012 and miss the season with a shoulder injury. The Bengals scooped him up this past season to back up on the interior and Pollak would end up playing 374 snaps between center, left guard, and right guard due to injuries. The 29-year-old was brilliant at every position in pass protection, compiling a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 97.4 (ninth). Wherever Pollak goes he likely won’t be guaranteed a starting position, but if he continues to perform at his 2013 level he’ll certainly have a good shot at winning a competition.
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