As NFL teams break for the final time before training camps get underway in earnest July 27, it's not unusual that a handful of veteran free agents don't yet have a home. It happens every year.
But the list of prominent vets still looking for work in 2021 is a bit jaw-dropping. There's a running back in Todd Gurley who was the league's Offensive Player of the Year in 2017. A cornerback in Richard Sherman who has been to five Pro Bowls. An edge-rusher in Justin Houston who has amassed 97.5 career sacks.
And they aren't even the cream of the crop.
Heading into 2020, Mitchell Schwartz was regarded by many as the NFL's preeminent right tackle. In 2019, in Kansas City's march to a championship, the 6'5", 320-pounder played 1,046 snaps—and didn't allow a single sack. That stellar year earned Schwartz his fourth All-Pro nod.
The back injury that robbed Schwartz of 10 games last year (and contributed to the Chiefs getting shelled in Super Bowl LV) got the 32-year-old released in the offseason.
The NFL can be cold sometimes.
Schwartz had surgery on his back in February, and he said to KCSP Radio in Kansas City (via Ed Easton Jr. of Chiefs Wire) that he's working toward full health before he moves on to the next chapter of his career.
"I gotta figure that out," said Schwartz. "I know some other teams have inquired, but again, just waiting to feel healthy. And once I feel healthy, then I can evaluate."
Were Schwartz already 100 percent, he'd have a team—and a fat paycheck. The list of right tackles who are better than him is short. But assuming he'll be fully healthy (or close to it) by the start of the regular season, a handful of teams should be on the phone with Schwartz's agent to arrange a sit-down.
Including one that already has his number.
Kansas City Chiefs
This signing would be predicated on a couple of things: Schwartz's willingness to brush off the sting of his release, and his willingness to likely take a sizable pay cut.
In that radio interview, Schwartz indicated he isn't necessarily averse to either: "I will, for no reason, shut the door on the Chiefs; I'm sure we'll talk at some point. It's all hypothetical anyway. I think you keep all your doors open anyway, so I'm not gonna lock myself in one way or another. Guys don't usually take the 'hometown discount,' but my situation is different."
Kansas City took a chainsaw to the offensive line in the offseason, adding Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens and signing guards Joe Thuney and Kyle Long and center Austin Blythe. The Chiefs will also get guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back after he opted out of the 2020 season, and they re-upped tackle Mike Remmers, who stepped in for Schwartz last year.
Remmers isn't terrible. In just over 700 snaps last year, he didn't allow a sack. But he most assuredly isn't Schwartz. He's a journeyman veteran who is well past age 30. Long already hurt his knee and could miss all of training camp.
A reunion may not be especially likely, but that doesn't make it unwise.
Los Angeles Chargers
This one would be a tough pill to swallow for Chiefs fans—and a potential godsend for reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert.
The Chargers have already taken major steps to improve an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked as the NFL's worst in 2020. The team signed Pro Bowl center Corey Linsley to a five-year, $62.5 million free-agent contract and used the 13th pick in April's draft on Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater. But even with those improvements, PFF still ranked L.A.'s new-look line in the league's bottom half.
Yes, the Chargers have a veteran right tackle in Bryan Bulaga. But the 32-year-old has had significant injury issues—the 11-year veteran missed six games in his first season with the Chargers last year because of various ailments, including back trouble, and has missed time in three of the past four campaigns.
Finding the cash to sign Schwartz isn't an issue—the Bolts have just under $20 million in available cap space, the fifth-most in the league.
Signing Schwartz would give the Chargers options. And an insurance policy against either another Bulaga injury or Slater taking time to acclimate to the NFL.
If everyone stays healthy, Bulaga could kick inside to guard (he played the position at Iowa). A line featuring Slater, Bulaga, Schwartz, Linsley and Matt Feiler would be light-years better than the sieve Herbert played behind in 2020.
The hardest part about pulling this one off is obvious: selling Schwartz on going from the two-time defending AFC champion to a team that lost 15 consecutive games in 2020.
However, the Jags do have one compelling factor working in their favor: $38.5 million in cap space, the most in the league.
Jacksonville surely hopes it hit the quarterback jackpot with Trevor Lawrence, the most highly touted prospect at his position since Andrew Luck entered the league in 2012. But we've seen more than one promising young QB have his confidence crushed by an unending onslaught of pass-rushers.
The Jaguars allowed 44 sacks last year, the seventh-most in the NFL. Much of those struggles can be attributed to a pair of young tackles in Cam Robinson, 25, and Jawaan Taylor, 23, who have been inconsistent at best. The latter in particular struggled last year. In 1,037 snaps, he gave up a cringeworthy eight sacks, and no tackle in the league allowed more pressures than the 58 he surrendered.
If Schwartz is anywhere close to his 2019 form, he'd be a titanic upgrade over Taylor—and a veteran presence who could hopefully help coax improvement from the younger tackles.
Bringing Schwartz to the Steel City would require some creative cap management from Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, as Pittsburgh has less than $7.4 million in wiggle room.
But if the team is serious about making one last run at a Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger under center, then Colbert needs to bust out his abacus and get to work.
Because given how Pittsburgh's offensive line is constructed, the Steelers have a better chance of finishing last in the AFC North than first.
To be blunt, their line is a hot mess, especially on the edges. Right tackle Zach Banner tore his ACL in the season opener last year and has started just two games. Left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who took over for Banner in 2020, is a replacement-level talent who had an overall grade at PFF last year south of 60.
At this stage, Roethlisberger has all the mobility of a flagpole. Putting the 39-year-old behind the fourth-worst line in the league is a recipe for disaster. Put Schwartz at left tackle. Right tackle. Either way, he would be a gigantic upgrade.
If a reunion with the Chiefs is out, the Steelers could also offer Schwartz the opportunity to play for a good team.
Mountains of words have been written about Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's prospects in his second season. Breakouts have been predicted. Mistakes on the practice field have been scrutinized into oblivion.
The Dolphins did a fine job of improving the weapons around him with the addition of receivers William Fuller V and rookie Jaylen Waddle. But there's an elephant in the room.
The offensive line in front of Tagovailoa is rather terrible. Miami allowed 34 sacks in 2020 and sported the league's fifth-worst line, per PFF. In that site's opinion, the 2021 iteration of that line is worse, as it sits 30th.
The Dolphins started a pair of rookies at tackle last year. First-rounder Austin Jackson gave up four sacks and committed five penalties, both tied for 19th in the league, in just under 850 snaps (41st), while second-rounder Robert Hunt allowed three sacks and committed eight penalties (seventh-worst) in 722 snaps (49th).
The finances would be tricky (Miami only has $5.3 million in cap space), and it's possible Hunt's play will improve in his second season.
But he could just as easily regress, and a young Dolphins line could use the veteran stability Schwartz would bring, especially when you consider that Tagovailoa is left-handed, so Schwartz would be guarding his blind side.
If Miami's serious about the playoffs, the team needs to get serious about Schwartz.