2012 NFL Free Agents: Jared Gaither Will Be the Most Overlooked Player This Year

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2012 NFL Free Agents: Jared Gaither Will Be the Most Overlooked Player This Year
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Before last season, as the Baltimore Ravens were redesigning their offense around Joe Flacco, I wrote that Jared Gaither was the key to that rebuilding process.

While Ozzie Newsome is a brilliant general manager with a proven track record including a Super Bowl ring, no person in the NFL, whether it be player, coach or personnel manager, is perfect. Newsome made a mistake by not giving Jared Gaither another chance in Baltimore.

Gaither had been with the Ravens for four seasons before becoming a free agent last offseason. When on the field in Baltimore, he was a dominant left tackle whose name belonged with the elite players at his position in the league.

Fittingly, Gaither's entrance to the NFL wasn't celebrated. After struggling academically in college, Gaither entered the NFL through the supplemental draft at only 21 years of age. Since then, his career has been in turmoil through different injuries.

In 2008, he became a full-time starter for the first time in only his second season. He started 15 games that year and 11 the next as well as starting in the team's five playoff games over the two seasons. After the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, Gaither would not play another game for the Ravens.

During that season, however, Gaither showed off an unbelievable ability to go toe-to-toe with elite pass-rushers and contain them without any help. His battles against James Harrison were particularly monstrous, and Gaither often got the better of him.

Gaither has that rare combination of bulk, speed and agility. Very few pass-rushers could beat him to a spot off the snap, while his lengthy arms and strength allows him to keep defenders at bay, preventing them from using any kind of pass-rushing moves. Bull-rushing him was never an option because of his balance and bulk.

The writing was somewhat on the wall for Gaither after the team took Michael Oher in the first round of the 2009 draft out of Ole Miss. With Oher at right tackle and Gaither protecting Joe Flacco's blindside, the Ravens had the best pair of tackles in the NFL in 2009.

Ray Rice ran for nearly 1,400 yards, while Joe Flacco completed more passes than he ever did previously.

Even before his 2010 season was lost because of a back injury, the Ravens were already looking to move Oher to left tackle. This move never made much sense to me because Oher had excelled at right tackle and was unproven on the left.

Oher played left tackle in 2010 but never came near the level of production that Gaither had amassed previously. Oher had the speed off the line, but his combination of bulk and agility in space was nowhere near the level of Gaither's.

After missing 2010, there were some question marks whether Gaither would ever play again, but he did indeed return this past season.

Despite being, statistically, one of the best tackles in the league, no team was willing to take a chance on Gaither as a starter. Even though players like Charlie Johnson and Demetrius Bell were still getting work as blindside protectors, Gaither instead found his way to Kansas City, where he had the opportunity to be a backup to Branden Albert.

He also had a chance to compete for the right tackle position with the Chiefs, but because of his body type and playing left tackle throughout his career, he never started a game for the Chiefs. Infamously, Todd Haley cut Gaither after he had a false-start penalty when he came in for Albert against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This was more a reflection on the ineptitude of Todd Haley as a head coach than on Gaither's ability on the field. Obviously coming in in a pivotal moment after not playing for so long was difficult for Gaither, but the Chiefs' division rival San Diego Chargers were only too happy to give him another opportunity.

With Marcus McNeil seemingly always ailing, the Chargers claimed Gaither off of waivers and never looked back.

Gaither looked like the player who had routinely shut down elite pass-rushers during his one season in Baltimore. It is no coincidence that Philip Rivers' level of play shot up after Gaither became the starter in Week 13.

Prior to Week 13, Rivers threw 15 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. From Week 13 onwards, Rivers threw 11 touchdowns to three interceptions.

When you consider the fact that Gaither is only 25 years of age, he should be looked at as one of the best young tackles in the NFL. Unfortunately for him, a series of injuries and an under-appreciation in Baltimore likely caused by Michael Oher's fame, has made him one of the most overlooked players in the NFL.

In a recent guest article by Samuel Monson of ProFootballFocus for Bleacher Report, Monson listed Gaither as a player who wouldn't get the money he deserved this offseason.

The Chargers then took a gamble on a hugely talented but rarely motivated player in the shape of Jared Gaither, who had recently been cut by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Gaither went on to lock down the left tackle spot for the Chargers for the remainder of the season. In the five games that he played, he didn’t allow a single sack or knockdown, and allowed just three total pressures despite 15 more pass-protecting snaps than Dombrowski had played.

Monson confirms my initial observations of Gaither being one of the better tackles in the NFL with his statistical breakdown.

Therefore, while many are looking at a 35-year-old Randy Moss coming out of retirement, or salivating over the prospect of bringing in a two-game starter in the form of Matt Flynn, very few people are paying attention to a proven player entering his prime who plays one of the most pivotal and difficult-to-fill positions in the NFL.

Jared Gaither will be the most overlooked NFL free agent this offseason. Fortunately for the San Diego Chargers, that means they will likely be able to re-sign him for next to nothing.

Teams like the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts all overlooked Gaither during last year's offseason. All appear set to do the same in 2012.

Tweeting @Cianaf

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