Monday, February 20, 2012

2012 Free Agency Top Fives: Guard

Over the next month leading up to the free-agent signing period on March 13, I'll be taking a look at the best players slated for free agency this offseason.

In this entry, I'll examine the top offensive guards expected to hit the open market next month, as well as some other notable names at the position.

1.  Carl Nicks, New Orleans Saints

A fifth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2008, Nicks has started 61 of 64 contests in four pro seasons. A Pro Bowler each of the past two years, Nicks has done well to protect Drew Brees and pave the way for whatever running back the Saints have trotted onto the field. Nicks will land a monster deal if he hits the open market, but he could get the franchise tag if the Saints can extend Brees before free agency begins.

2. Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles

A bust in his first four pro seasons with the Panthers and Dolphins, Mathis emerged as a quality guard in two seasons with the Bengals and didn't disappoint as a starter with the Eagles in 2011, grading out as the best run-blocking guard and best overall guard in the league. Mathis also hasn't allowed a sack over the past four years and could be a steal for someone if the entire league doesn't realize how good he is.

3. Ben Grubbs, Baltimore Ravens

A standout lineman at Auburn, Grubbs was the 29th overall pick in 2007 and has 70 starts over five pro seasons. Earning his first Pro Bowl selection in 2011, Grubbs helped Ray Rice rank second in the NFL in rushing while grading out as the No. 10 guard in the league despite missing six games. The 27-year-old should be in line for a significant deal from someone.

4. Jake Scott, Tennessee Titans

The starter of 120 consecutive contests between stints with the Colts and Titans, Scott rebounded from his worst season in 2010 to have his best season in 2011, grading out as PFF's No. 7 overall guard. Scott is a fairly undersized guard that isn't going to fit into every scheme, but in the right situation he can be a very good starter and he should have no trouble finding a job.

5. Montrae Holland, Dallas Cowboys

Originally a fourth-round pick by New Orleans in 2003, Holland has been a part-time starter for much of his career with 60 contests opened in stints with the Saints, Broncos, and Cowboys. Although he started only 10 games in 2011, Holland had his best season yet and did well paving way for rookie running back DeMarco Murray. Although he doesn't have a lengthy track record of quality play, perhaps things have finally clicked for the 31-year-old veteran and he can put together a few more seasons as a productive starter.

Beyond the Top Five
  • Jacob Bell, St. Louis Rams — A fifth-round pick by the Titans in 2004, landed a $36-million contract with the Rams in 2008. After three pretty average seasons, Bell is coming off the worst year of his career and will hit free agency after restructuring his deal. He might land a short-term starting job somewhere, but he couldn't have less momentum.
  • Mike Brisiel, Houston Texans — Undrafted in 2006, Brisiel has started 47 games over the past five years, including 13 in 2011 for one of the league's best rushing attacks. His upside is a bit limited, but he could be a bargain starter for a lot of teams.
  • Vernon Carey, Miami Dolphins — Moved inside in 2011 after a career at tackle, the former first-round pick struggled for the most part as an ineffective run blocker. He's only 30 and has experience at tackle and guard, but his conditioning and mobility continue to decline and I'm not sure he has much more starting ability left.
  • Leonard Davis, Detroit Lions — The No. 2 overall pick in 2001, Davis was somewhat of a disappointment at tackle but fashioned a nice career for himself at guard with three straight Pro Bowl selections from 2007-09 with the Cowboys. He'll be 34 next season and spent all of the 2011 season on the Lions' injured reserve list, so his career might be winding down.
  • Ryan Diem, Indianapolis Colts — A long-time protector of Peyton Manning at tackle for the Colts, Diem opened 10 games at guard in 2011 with little success. He's limited scheme-wise and coming off a poor season at 32, so he's not a great bet to continue his career as a starter.
  • Derrick Dockery, Dallas Cowboys — A quality starter for the Redskins from 2003-06, Dockery busted after a monster deal with Buffalo and subsequently struggled to produce during a second stint in Washington. After struggling in nine games (two starts) with Dallas in 2011, the soon-to-be 32-year-old is probably finished as a starter.
  • Trai Essex, Pittsburgh Steelers — A third-round pick in 2005, Essex has primarily been a backup in his career aside from a 16-start season in 2009. During that season, he ranked as PFF's worst offensive guard and third-worst as a run-blocker. The 29-year-old has no real upside and profiles strictly as a backup, although most teams should go younger.
  • Geoff Hangartner, Carolina Panthers — Hangartner spent four seasons (2005-08) with the Panthers before disappointing as a free-agent pickup for the Bills and returned to Carolina two years later. He graded out as a solid starter for the Panthers in 2011, however, and could be a stopgap starter or versatile backup for somebody.
  • Russ Hochstein, Denver Broncos — A two-time Super Bowl champion with the Patriots, Hochstein has appeared in 138 regular season games but has just 36 career starts, with none in 2011. The 34-year-old is not a starting-caliber player and profiles as a backup guard and center at best.
  • Nate Livings, Cincinnati Bengals — Undrafted out of LSU in 2006, Livings has started 47 games over the past four seasons, including all 32 since the 2010 season began. However, he's graded out very poorly during that span and doesn't look like a quality starting option.
  • Deuce Lutui, Arizona Cardinals — A behemoth of a guard, the Tonga native had had a rocky career as PFF's worst guard in 2008, a solid starter in 2009, and a sub-par one in 2010. In 2011, Lutui didn't start a game for the first time in his career and played only 45 offensive snaps. The 28-year-old still has ability and could turn into a good starter with the right combination of coaching and effort, but nobody is going to line up to sign him.
  • Mike McGlynn, Cincinnati Bengals — A fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2008, McGlynn has only managed 14 career starts in four seasons and most of those have come due to other injuries. He graded out as a poor guard in 2011 with the Bengals and will need a huge turnaround to ever be a contributor.
  • Paul McQuistan, Seattle Seahawks — A disappointing third-rounder by the Raiders in 2006, McQuistan didn't start a game between 2008-10 before opening 10 contests in 2011. He's a versatile guy, but the 28-year-old is nothing more than a backup.
  • Chilo Rachal, San Francisco 49ers — Drafted in the second round out of USC in 2008, Rachal had two good seasons from 2009-10 before being replaced by a sub-par Adam Snyder (below) at right guard during the 2011 season. Rachal is still just 25 and has plenty of ability, so someone should be able to get starting production out of him.
  • Adam Snyder, San Francisco 49ers — An on-and-off starter since he came into the league in 2005, Snyder replaced Chilo Rachal (above) as the 49ers' right guard in 2011 but graded out extremely poorly. He might be able to land a starting job on experience and recent team success, but he's not a great talent.
  • Floyd Womack, Arizona Cardinals — An occasional starter with the Seahawks (2001-08) and Browns (2009-10), Womack opened 71 of 119 games played before landing on IR with a shoulder injury in his first season in Arizona. The 33-year-old is versatile and a capable backup, but durability is a concern for "Pork Chop" and cheaper alternatives can probably be found.
  • Bobbie Williams, Cincinnati Bengals — A long-time starting NFL guard, Williams has started 130 games in his 12-year-career and has graded out incredibly well over the past four seasons in Cincinnati. He was limited to just nine games with a broken ankle in 2011 and turns 36 next season, but he can still play at a high level if healthy and could be a quality short-term starter.
  • Jeremy Zuttah, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — The 83rd overall pick in 2008, has started 44 of 58 games played in four seasons and has generally played pretty well. He's still only 25 and should have plenty of starting opportunities around the league.

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