The offensive line might be an afterthought to the casual NFL fan, but that is not the case with NFL front offices. They put a premium on edge protectors in this pass-happy NFL.
Here, we take a wide-angle look at the available offensive linemen on the free-agent market this winter.
This list focuses on the top 10 free-agent offensive linemen who are in their prime. So, you will not see Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross (pictured above) here, despite the fact he earned a 33.5 rating from Pro Football Focus. That is the top grade among all of the free agents, but he is also near retirement at the age of 33.
Because statistics are hard to come by for those who make their living blocking, we use PFF's widely accepted ratings system throughout our analysis in this 10-part slideshow.
It has generally been thought the Cleveland Browns' front-office turnover was good news for free-agent center Alex Mack returning to the team. New general manger Ray Farmer hasn't made it obvious, telling Mary Kay Kabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
We went through every player on this roster and we discussed the players we thought could help us win. That's what it comes down to. We are in lockstep on who the guys are and what those guys need to be and have to do to move forward...Do they help us win? They have. They have. That's past tense.
Ouch. That last part seems ominous for Browns fans—as in Mack is past the point of helping the team win. Or that could merely be GM-speak amid negotiations.
Mack, 28 years old, is not a candidate for the franchise tag in Cleveland. Doing so would require an $11 million deal, because centers are lumped in with the higher-paid offensive tackles, according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.
Still, the Browns are interested in bringing back Mack (no relation to this writer), Ulrich reports. With the Detroit Lions re-signing Dominic Raiola earlier this month, Mack is the No. 1-rated center on the free-agent market, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Browns have the third-most cap space in the NFL, according to Spotrac.com. They have the interest and means to outbid anyone in the Mack sweepstakes. Expect him to return to Cleveland on a multi-year deal.
The Kansas City Chiefs had a great year, and Branden Albert was a part of it, but he had a tough one individually.
First, he was mired in the stickiest contract dispute after being franchise tagged by the Chiefs last winter. Then, he had to watch Andy Reid's regime draft a projected left tackle, Eric Fisher, No. 1 overall. Albert wound up playing under a one-year franchise tender.
He missed time with a knee injury and has graded negatively in the running game each of the past two years, according to Pro Football Focus.
Still, left tackles are hard to come by. The Chiefs seem willing to take their chances with Fisher moving from right tackle to left this season and allowing Albert, 29 years of age, to leave.
Albert is still a solid pass-blocking left tackle, giving up just four sacks in 555 snaps, according to PFF. Two teams that figure to be pass happy and need left tackles are the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins. They might engage in a bidding war, but since the Dolphins need an entire offensive line, we will project the Cardinals to make Albert their main focus.
Jared Veldheer is in a real good spot. He is just now entering his prime at age 26, is productive and is playing for a team that has the most cap space in the entire league, according to Spotrac.com.
It will be tough for the Oakland Raiders to get better without retaining their No. 1 free agent.
An untimely triceps tear ruined his 2013 campaign, so health might be the only thing that keeps him from making a large multi-year deal. On the Raiders' end, it might make him a bit more affordable than he would have been otherwise.
He missed just one snap combined between 2011 and 2012, according to Pro Football Focus, so concerns about his health should be minimal.
The Raiders have to spend their money on getting someone, and luring new talent to Oakland might be a tough sell. In Veldheer, they have a left tackle in his prime who can lock a premium position down for years. Per Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com, Veldheer wants to return and is willing to sign long term. Locking him up will help the Raiders use the remaining resources elsewhere to aid their flailing franchise.
Eugene Monroe was a rare premium player who was dealt before the trade deadline last season, but that was more of a function of the Baltimore Ravens' need for him than any knock on Monroe. The Jaguars had drafted their future left tackle last April and was merely opening a spot for him, a la the Kansas City Chiefs.
He is in a good position at age 26, particularly since the Ravens want him back, as the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson reports.
"It's a blessing to be in this position," Monroe told WNST radio in Baltimore. "Not everyone gets to be here. Everyone wants to be here. I definitely understand that."
As for a hometown discount for the Virginia product to return to Baltimore?
"You have to get the absolute best because you put forth your best effort all the time, every single day in this league," he told WNST. "So, there's definitely no discounts."
Both of the Ravens tackles are free agents, so there is definitely a need there. Pro Football Focus graded Monroe as the No. 1 tackle on the market. Expect the Ravens to prioritize making a long-term deal with him in the next couple of weeks.
Anthony Collins is an interesting case versus the preceding players in this slideshow because he's "new money" at the left tackle position. He didn't start until the final six games of the season, after previous left tackle Andrew Whitworth was moved inside to guard.
Now, Collins is 28 and hitting the free-agent market at an opportune time.
After taking over down the stretch, he didn't allow a sack and allowed just one quarterback pressure, according to Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Albeit in limited snaps, the career backup graded as the No. 1 pass-blocking tackle in the league with a 97.2 efficiency rating at Pro Football Focus.
Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander seems to turn water into wine with his pass protectors, so expect the Bengals to trust him with a new-wave player—one who is a bit better in the running game. Expect the loser of the Branden Albert bidding to wind up with a solid pass-blocker in Collins—be it the Arizona Cardinals or Miami Dolphins.
Since we gave Albert to Arizona and have Eugene Monroe returning to the Baltimore Ravens, let's expect Miami to wind up with Collins. He fits Joe Philbin's rhythm passing scheme well.
The Green Bay Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith might have been undrafted, but he has become one of the best centers in football, as graded by Pro Football Focus. He is No. 2 to Alex Mack at the position on the free-agent market.
Fox Sports Wisconsin's Paul Imig doesn't expect Dietrich-Smith, No. 6 among all centers at PFF, to return to the Packers. That sets him up as a nice fit for a team that needs an interior lineman, such as the Baltimore Ravens or New York Giants.
That didn't keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers from lobbying for Dietrich-Smith's return to Green Bay to Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "I think you see that with Evan and I, the opportunity to play together for an extended period of time and that would be kind of a quarterback’s dream."
Imig reported that many Green Bay free agents talked about their desire to return at the end of the season. Dietrich-Smith said it was a business, which made him sound like a guy who is ready to get paid by someone else.
The New York Giants hired Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo to be their offensive coordinator, so it is conceivable that McAdoo brings Dietrich-Smith to a Giants team that needs help on the interior of the offensive line, particularly at center. He fits the Giants.
Kansas City Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah, who lost his starting spot to fellow free agent Geoff Schwartz down the stretch, might not be the best free-agent guard on the board, as rated by Pro Football Focus, but he is the youngest of the best.
That in itself is noteworthy. Teams consider age prominently when allocating their resources for long-term deals.
With their left tackle Branden Albert, right guard Asamoah and swing lineman Schwartz all in free agency, the Chiefs have to make some tough decisions on their offensive line. They seem resigned to making last year's No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher their left tackle, and Schwartz might come more cheaply than Asamoah—and Schwartz can play right tackle.
That leaves Asamoah as a likely odd man out, like he was down the stretch for the Chiefs.
Asamoah will be just 26 next season, so his best years are ahead of him. The New York Jets need help along the offensive line, and they have a lot of salary-cap space, according to Spotrac.com.
Once the Jets officially cut Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez off the books, there will be many millions more. Expect some of them to be offered to a solid interior run-blocking lineman like Asamoah.
New Orleans Saints right tackle Zach Strief was a seventh-round pick out of Northwestern and was a career backup before becoming a starter in 2011. He hasn't looked back since, but that doesn't mean he has gotten enough credit for what he has become.
He is now one of the best right tackles in football. Pro Football Focus graded him the best at the position, giving him a plus-28.9 in 1,213 snaps. That is a higher grade than all but 33-year-old Jordan Gross, who plays on the left side, among free-agent tackles.
Strief is still just 30.
Strief could be viewed as a product of the system in New Orleans. Drew Brees' quick release and smarts can make a lot of linemen look good. Also, the Saints' woeful running game might make them consider a change along their offensive line.
He is a commodity but perhaps a luxury that the cap-strapped Saints cannot afford. They released a lot of dead-weight veterans and are still just around $5.18 million under the cap, according to Spotrac.com. They have arguably the best free agent on the market still unsigned in Jimmy Graham and a premium center in Brian de la Puente as a potential free agent, too.
Expect Strief to be an answer for a line-needy team like the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens or Miami Dolphins. Of those teams, the Dolphins have the most holes along the line and the most cap space.
No one wanted Travelle Wharton last offseason, but look at him now. The 32-year-old is coming off a great season and rates No. 1 among free-agent guards, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Panthers lucked out on Wharton by re-signing him after he was cut by the Bengals. They only did so because of preseason injuries to Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila, according to ESPN's David Newton.
Wharton's age and the fact he has a long-time home in North Carolina work in the Panthers' favor to re-sign him, but his career year makes it likely that a line-needy team will bring him in on a one-year deal.
The Panthers have limited cap space and a lot of more important free agents to sign—namely defensive end Greg Hardy and tackle Jordan Gross—according to Spotrac.com. If Wharton doesn't mind moving elsewhere for a year, he would be a nice fit for any of the line-needy teams we have previously mentioned in this slideshow: the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals or New York Jets.
Kansas City Chiefs lineman Geoff Schwartz is in a good spot, and not only because he is rated as one of the best free-agent guards by Pro Football Focus. The Chiefs seem unlikely to be able to afford left tackle Branden Albert or right guard Jon Asamoah.
Schwartz replaced the younger Asamoah as the starting guard down the stretch and now could be the the answer at right tackle, with 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher assuming Albert's left tackle spot in Kansas City.
Since Schwartz is 27 and a career backup, he should come far more cheaply than Albert or Asamoah, but he is no less productive. He also offers versatility.
The Chiefs liked what they had in Schwartz, so expect the two to come to an agreement once Albert and Asamoah officially hit the market on March 11. The Chiefs will continue to draft linemen, but a versatile veteran like Schwartz, who can play both sides at guard or tackle, will give the Chiefs a lot of flexibility in the offseason to handle their heavy line losses in free agency.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.