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Draft King Analysis
February 8, 2012
Lou Pickney, DraftKing.com

Reader feedback is always welcomed here on Draft King. Sound off with your thoughts on Twitter (@LouPickney) or via email at LouPickney@gmail.com.


Snubbed! Yesterday afternoon the NFL sent me this email:

We have received your request for media credentials to the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. Unfortunately, due to tremendous demand, we are unable to accommodate your request.

Thank you for your interest in the NFL.

Corry Rush
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE

Luckily for me, combine workouts are televised live on the NFL Network, but I had plans to report on some of the behind-the-scenes happenings in Indianapolis. Oh well.


For as much as offensive linemen tend to be overlooked by casual fans, you seldom see an elite offensive lineman hit the open market, in particular top-tier offensive tackles. That's not by accident, and while some may be more up to speed about the importance of the left offensive tackle spot (to protect right-handed QBs) thanks to The Blind Side, typically offensive linemen aren't well-known. Often the only time you'll hear them mentioned during a broadcast after starter introductions is if they are flagged for a false start or holding.

Here's a look at some of the top offensive linemen who are pending free agents for the upcoming NFL off-season. Note that guys who will be cut for salary cap reasons aren't in the mix yet, but there will be some veterans who end up jettisoned as teams work to get under the cap.

Offensive Tackles

Jeff Backus, Lions (DOB: 9/21/1977)
Detroit selected Backus with the #18 pick in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft, a remarkably stacked group in hindsight, with 21 of the first 36 players drafted having made at least one Pro Bowl. Backus has never received a Pro Bowl invite himself, but he has been remarkably consistent. He started in his first game as a rookie in 2001 and has started every regular-and-postseason game for the Lions since then.

Think about what that means: Backus retained his starting spot under five different coaches: Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron, Rod Marinelli, and Jim Schwartz. He endured the Matt Millen era and the 0-16 season. He overcame injuries to never miss a start in 11 seasons with the Lions, and he finally had the chance to participate in a playoff game last month.

Backus seems like an ideal candidate for the franchise tag from Detroit: he'll turn 35 in September, and thus keeping him in house via a long-term deal might be foolish for the Lions. Detroit likely won't be able to snag an offensive tackle of his caliber via free agency, and it would be a roll of the dice by the Lions to hope that Stanford OT Jonathan Martin and/or Ohio State OT Mike Adams will be on the board when their pick comes up at the #24 spot.

Demetrius Bell, Bills (DOB: 5/3/1984)
Bell is most famous for reportedly being the illegitimate child of former NBA star Karl Malone. Full disclosure: Malone was a total prick when I interviewed him for my college radio station after an NBA preseason game in Evansville in 1997, and I hold a grudge against him to this day over it. But that's not Bell's fault -- it took DNA test results indicating Malone's paternity to prompt him to cough up an out-of-court settlement to Bell's family.

Demetrius Bell
Demetrius Bell is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next month. (Icon SMI)
The most intriguing part is that Malone reportedly impregnated Bell's mother when she was 13 and he was a sophomore at Louisiana Tech; the age of consent in Louisiana is 17. Could you imagine the controversy if a big-time college athlete in this era knocked up a 13-year-old? That's not just creepy; it's statutory rape.

Bell's route to the NFL was unusual beyond just his genealogy; he went to Northwestern State on a basketball scholarship and had only two years of experience playing offensive tackle when the Bills drafted him in round seven of the 2008 NFL Draft. Bell started all 16 games at offensive tackle for Buffalo in 2010, but he played in only eight games this past season due to shoulder and knee injuries.

Jared Gaither, Chargers (DOB: 3/18/1986)
At 6'9", Gaither is actually taller than the typical prototype offensive tackle. His path into the NFL was unusual, with Gaither abruptly leaving the University of Maryland in June 2007 after being ruled academically ineligible for the 2007 college season. Gaither went into the NFL supplemental draft, where Baltimore relinquished its 2008 fifth round selection to acquire his rights.

Gaither played three years for the Ravens, then spent a fourth year with the team on injured reserve in 2010. As an unrestricted free agent following the 2011 lockout, Gaither signed with Kansas City. He ended up being cut by the Chiefs in late November and was signed off of waivers by San Diego, where he managed to fill a need spot with Chargers standout OT Marcus McNeill out of action with a neck injury. Ironically, Gaither could end up competing with McNeill on the open market if the Chargers cut McNeill, which many believe the team will do with McNeill since he is slated to have a $10,500,000 base salary for 2012.

Offensive Guards

Carl Nicks, Saints (DOB: 5/14/1985)
It's rare that a player coming off of back-to-back All-Pro seasons manages to become an unrestricted free agent. But, barring any surprises, it appears that Nicks will hit the open market next month when free agency begins, and he might break the record for the most guaranteed money given to an offensive guard in a single contract.

A fifth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2008 (after stints at New Mexico State and Hartnell College), Nicks developed into an elite offensive guard in his first four seasons in the NFL. Most teams with that kind of player would likely break the bank to keep him, but due to an unusual situation in New Orleans, that appears unlikely to happen for Nicks and the Saints.

Two years ago, New Orleans kept restricted free agent OG Jahri Evans in town by signing him to a seven-year, $56.7 million ($19M guaranteed) contract. The Saints will likely to use their franchise tag on Drew Brees if they are unable to sign him to a new contract by March 5, which would eliminate that as an option for Evans. But, even if the Saints sign Brees to a new deal, using the tag on Nicks would commit an excessive amount of money to the offensive guard position for the 2012 season.

Nicks reportedly has not been approached by the Saints about signing a new deal. If he hits the open market (and in all likelihood he will), Nicks would likely see some huge offers. The record for guaranteed money given to an offensive guard is the $30M guaranteed that New England gave Logan Mankins shortly after the 2011 NFL lockout ended. I anticipate that Nicks will break that record next month, though I also strongly doubt that he'll surpass the offensive lineman record for guaranteed cash. This past August, Cleveland signed offensive tackle Joe Thomas to a new long-term deal that included $44M guaranteed, a mark that I expect will survive this off-season.

Ben Grubbs, Ravens (DOB: 3/10/1984)
Ben Grubbs
It seems unlikely that Baltimore would use its franchise tag on Ben Grubbs. (Icon SMI)
A first-round pick in 2007, Grubbs was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and should gain plenty of interest if he hits the open market. Grubbs started every game for the 2004 Auburn Tigers team that got absolutely screwed by college football's antiquated means of arbitrarily determining a national champion. Grubbs missed six games last season due to turf toe, but he has overall proven to be a consistent player for Baltimore.

Unless the Ravens sign RB Ray Rice to a new deal before the franchise tag deadline, it's extremely unlikely that the team would franchise Grubbs, since the Ravens would need that tag to keep Rice with the team. Grubbs may not land the massive contract that is likely awaiting Carl Nicks in free agency, but he is a proven performer who could provide immediate interior offensive line help for whichever team lands him.

Evan Mathis, Eagles (DOB: 11/1/1981)
Mathis started and played in all but one game for the Eagles last season. Philadelphia signed him to a one-year deal after the lockout, and while he didn't command the headlines that other additions to the "Dream Team" had, his presence at left guard for the Eagles was a steady force in 2011. Nicks and Grubbs may draw more interest in free agency, but the 31-year-old Mathis should be able to find a home in the NFL in 2012, whether it's back in Philadelphia or elsewhere with another team.

Centers

Scott Wells, Packers (DOB: 1/7/1981)
A consistent force on Green Bay's offensive line, Wells hasn't missed a start since 2009, and he has played in at least 13 games for the Packers every season since 2005. Wells made the Pro Bowl this past season, which was convenient timing with him slated to become an unrestricted free agent. Green Bay has expressed interest in keeping him, and it's entirely possible that the Packers will sign him to a new contract before free agency begins.

The franchise tag almost for sure won't be used on Wells, with tight end Jermichael Finley likely to be slapped with it. Wells is 31, and this might be his last opportunity to land a large long-term contract, be it from Green Bay or from another team if he tests his value on the open market.

Chris Myers, Texans (DOB: 9/15/1981)
Houston has run a zone blocking scheme, and Myers has thrived in the Texans system. Myers has started every game going back to 2006, his final year with the Broncos, and he is considered by many to be one of the better centers in the league.

It seems unlikely that teams that don't primarily utilize zone blocking schemes would have strong interest in Myers, which could create an interesting situation for Myers on the open market. Myers turns 31 in September, and just like Scott Wells, Myers may be staring at his last chance to cash in with a big long-term contract. Staying in Houston would make sense for Myers since he fits the system there so well, but if he feels low-balled by what the Texans offer him contractually, he could sign elsewhere if other teams are willing to outspend Houston to acquire his services.

Nick Hardwick, Chargers (DOB: 9/21/1981)
It's unclear what the future holds for Hardwick, who teased in late December that he might retire. Hardwick, a third round selection by San Diego in the 2004 NFL Draft, started every game for San Diego in 2010 and 2011.

Matt Birk, Ravens (DOB: 7/23/1976)
It appears likely that Birk will do one of two things, either retire or come back for one more year with the Ravens. Birk is a Harvard graduate who was voted to six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. But Birk turns 36 in July, and he has enough potential opportunities outside of football to where he doesn't have to grind out one more year if he doesn't want to do so.

It's rare anymore that I write about a player who is older than me, and it's even rarer to write about a player who performed better on the ACT than I did (Birk scored a 34 on it). If Birk decides to come back to the NFL it would likely be for only one more year and would likely only be with the Ravens, but it's worth including him on this list since him returning to Baltimore would mean one less team to potentially go after one of the high-profile free agent centers.


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