With Shrinking NFL Cap, Get Ready for Quality O-Linemen to Be Widely Available

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 7, 2021

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2019, file photo, Oakland Raiders offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) protects a gap in the offensive line during an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, in Oakland, Calif. The Las Vegas Raiders sent all five starting offensive linemen home as part of coronavirus contact tracing after right tackle Trent Brown was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list with a positive test. The Raiders held practice on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020 without their starting five as they prepare for Sunday’s home game against Tampa Bay. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit, File)
Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

Two years ago, the Raiders reset the offensive line market when they signed Trent Brown to a four-year, $66 million contract. This offseason, Las Vegas has discussed the possibility of trading him, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

Brown's situation is a microcosm of a shifting line market that will see multiple quality blockers change teams when the league year opens March 17 because of a cap that's likely to shrink.

Several organizations are looking to dump quality linemen acquired within the last three years. 

The Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants are trying to trade left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Kevin Zeitler, respectively, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora. The Los Angeles Chargers are trying to move five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter

Not only will the market reset, with linemen expected to earn much less, but a would-be lackluster free-agent class could also get a boost. 

As difficult as it can be to properly develop offensive linemen, teams have to keep the following cap hits in mind: 

  • Brown, $14 million
  • Norwell, $15 million
  • Zeitler, $14.5 million
  • Turner, $11.3 million
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It should be obvious why those guys are available. For context, those respective numbers rank third, first, third and sixth at their positions, per Over the Cap. And despite the trade winds, each player will likely be cut. 

In addition, Las Vegas already released guards Gabe Jackson and Richie Incognito, while the Houston Texans moved on from center Nick Martin. 

Right tackle Taylor Moton would have been the top free-agent target. But Rapoport reported the Carolina Panthers are expected to franchise-tag their best blocker. Trent Williams is the biggest name on the market, but he seems interested in re-signing with the San Francisco 49ers. 

Russell Okung, Alejandro Villanueva and Daryl Williams comprise the next tier of available tackles. 

Guard is far more intriguing in what could turn into a flooded class, depending on what the Washington Football Team and New England Patriots do with Brandon Scherff and Joe Thuney.

According to ESPN's John Keim, Washington still wants to sign Scherff long term, and a second straight franchise tag may be in play if they don't reach an agreement ahead of Tuesday's tag deadline.

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Thuney could be the most attainable top-shelf lineman. The Athletic's Jeff Howe reported the Patriots and the versatile blocker have "never been close to an agreement" after Thuney played last season under the franchise tag. 

Center presents the most depth. Corey Linsley, David Andrews, Alex Mack, Austin Blythe and Austin Reiter are proven veterans. Ted Karras, Matt Skura, Dan Feeney, Ethan Pocic and Ben Garland have starting experience as well. 

The upcoming draft class is deep, too, particularly at tackle. In most years, teams are especially concerned with how well O-line prospects will transition to the NFL. Plus, the quality of the class isn't normally deep.

But last year's draft was stacked at tackle, and those prospects largely performed well. A few interior options—the New Orleans' Saints Cesar Ruiz, Denver Broncos' Lloyd Cushenberry III, Seattle Seahawks' Damien Lewis, Detroit Lions' Jonah Jackson, Miami Dolphins' Solomon Kindley, New York Giants' Shane Lemieux and New England Patriots' Michael Onwenubecame first-year starters too. Concerns about a lack of quality from the collegiate ranks have seemingly dissipated, as 20 offensive linemen could hear their names called in the first three rounds. This will further devalue free-agent bids. 

Still, plenty of enticing options exist for franchises.

The Cincinnati Bengals, who own the fifth pick, require a massive overhaul. Joe Burrow's protection should remain the franchise's No. 1 offseason priority, and the team should double-dip in free agency and the draft with Oregon's Penei Sewell or Northwestern's Rashawn Slater. The organization's penchant for acquiring former Buckeyes could lure Norwell and Linsley back to their home state.

A strong push to improve the interior coupled with an offensive tackle in this year's first round would turn a weakness into a strength. 

Less than a year ago, the New York Jets splurged on free-agent offensive linemen by adding Connor McGovern, George Fant and Greg Van Roten. However, general manager Joe Douglas didn't finish the job. The interior remains a problem. Thuney might be the team's top target considering New York reportedly valued him last offseason, per Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline, before New England franchise-tagged him. 

Both the Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks must mend fences with star quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson, respectively. To do so, they need reinforcements along the offensive line.

Jason Behnken/Associated Press

The Chicago Bears need to rebuild the right side of their offensive front. The Pittsburgh Steelers have holes at center and left tackle. The Chargers don't have a starting-caliber left tackle or center and are trying to trade Turner. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers exposed the Kansas City Chiefs' lack of offensive line depth in Super Bowl LV. The Minnesota Vikings have a major weakness at left guard. Washington could use a new left tackle. 

Basically, every team needs another quality offensive lineman, except maybe the Cleveland Browns, who had Pro Football Focus' top-ranked unit last season. But those squads in dire need of a solid foundation can rectify mistakes by being patient. Linemen will shake loose, and their contract demands won't be anywhere close to the deals they previously signed. 

Even with that in mind, the Jaguars—left tackle Cam Robinson is an impending free agentJets, Washington Football Team, Patriots and Bengals are ranked as the top-five franchises in available salary-cap space, per Spotrac.

All five lack the proper foundation for a capable offense. These organizations don't need to splurge once free agency begins, but they have the financial flexibility to sweeten the pot if names like Brown, Turner, Norwell and Zeitler become available. 

Offensive linemen no longer hold the same value they did when the market reset multiple times over the last three years, yet the position remains quite valuable. As franchises attempt to rid themselves of expensive contracts, others will benefit by building solid fronts to stabilize their offenses.

     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.