Big-bodied and fleet-footed aren't adjectives that often describe the same NFL offensive guard—and when they do, it's never cheap to lock him down.
Just ask the New Orleans Saints. They're on the hook for $56 million over the next seven years for All-Pro guard Jahri Evans. In 2008, the New York Jets signed Alan Faneca to a five-year deal worth $40 million, four months after his 32nd birthday.
Fortunately for the Jacksonville Jaguars, fourth-year guard Uche Nwaneri isn't in Evans and Faneca's esteemed company just yet. Sooner rather than later, the five-year, $24 million ($8 million guaranteed) extension he signed Wednesday is going to look like a bargain.
Nwaneri flashed big-time power as a run blocker in Jacksonville's third game last year. On one of Maurice Jones-Drew's three touchdown runs at Houston, Nwaneri plowed through two of the Texans' linebackers to clear the way—including All-Pro DeMeco Ryans.
It didn't go unnoticed back then, either by this writer or the Jaguars. After that eye-popping performance coming off the bench, Nwaneri kept his starting job for the rest of the season as Jones-Drew set career highs with 15 touchdowns and almost 1,400 yards rushing.
Part of Nwaneri's value to Jacksonville is owing to the state of the Jaguars' depth chart. Veterans Vince Manuwai and Justin Smiley, both once-dominant maulers slowed by injuries, struggled to beat journeyman Kynan Forney for their roster spots this summer.
Between second-year tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, quality is scarce.
Still, general manager Gene Smith doesn't pay for scarcity. Cincinnati Bengals safety Reggie Nelson and Oakland Raiders defensive tackle John Henderson are two recent examples of starters he's sent packing at positions of need.
But Jacksonville didn't hesitate to open the checkbook for Nwaneri, a fifth-round draft pick from 2007 whose rookie contract would have expired after this season. He's the key to Jones-Drew's continued success, which pretty much makes him the key to the Jaguars' chances of winning.
In Jacksonville's man-blocking ground game, sometimes called a "power" scheme, straight-line bulldozers like Manuwai and center Brad Meester are only part of the puzzle. Even if the right one-on-one battles are won at the line of scrimmage, someone still needs to make a second-level block for Jones-Drew to see daylight.
As the Jaguars' nimblest interior lineman, that's often Nwaneri's job. Whether pulling to overload one side of the defense or cutting through to knock out a linebacker, his is the block that will typically make or break a play.
Once upon a time, Jacksonville could call on either Meester or Manuwai to handle that chore. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars went 11-5, won a playoff game, and rushed for almost 150 yards per game in 2007, when both of those veterans were in their prime.
At 6'3" and 330 pounds, Nwaneri has a bigger, longer frame than Manuwai and more "sand in his pants" than Meester.
Eventually, it's possible that he could take over for Meester as Jacksonville's center. The Jaguars wanted him to push for the role this summer, but Meester's experience and their lack of depth at guard prevented the move.
Outside of his widely-publicized assessment of rookie quarterback Tim Tebow, Nwaneri's only substantive mention in the media this offseason had been coverage of that failed experiment.
Wednesday, Jacksonville gave us 24 million reasons to talk about the position he can play.