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Free Agency Shook Up the NFL’s Offensive Line Hierarchy

Last week brought major roster shuffling, nowhere more than along the offensive line. Which teams followed the lead of the Cowboys and Raiders and built around their fronts?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

We’re about a week into the NFL free-agency period, and most of the dust has already settled. The sheer madness of last Wednesday and Thursday all but guaranteed that, aside from the lingering possibility of a couple moves involving quarterbacks (Tony Romo heading to another team; a franchise potentially trading for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo), the tail end of this offseason’s spending spree was going to be relatively quiet. That makes now a good time to survey the major changes to the league’s landscape, and this year there’s only one logical place to start.

Amid all the roster overhauls, no position group experienced more turnover than the offensive line. Following the signings that have already happened, nine different teams — nearly one-third of the league — have at least two new starters penciled in along the line, and that’s before the shake-ups that will inevitably happen during next month’s draft. That’s a lot of shuffling in an area where teams have long valued continuity. Examining the factors at play, it’s clear how these transformations came to be.

The sheer number of high-end guards available on the market ensured that teams looking to upgrade were going to have options. Four of this year’s free-agent guards — T.J. Lang (Lions), Ronald Leary (Broncos), Larry Warford (Saints), and Kevin Zeitler (Browns) — are now among the 13 highest-paid players in the league at the position (in terms of guaranteed money). The talent up for grabs was abundant, and with over half the league entering 2017 free agency at least $30 million under the salary cap, the number of teams in the mix for the top guys meant a hefty payday.

Even at left tackle, where the talent pool was considerably worse, the available money on the market led to monster deals for the likes of Matt Kalil ($31 million guaranteed from Carolina), Russell Okung ($25 million guaranteed from the Los Angeles Chargers), and Riley Reiff ($26.3 million from Minnesota). Reiff was more effective than either Kalil or Okung in 2016, but he also spent the season serving as the Lions’ right tackle. There’s a reason that Detroit drafted Taylor Decker in the first round of last year’s draft and slid Reiff to the right side: He’s miscast as an NFL left tackle, and while his floor is significantly higher than that of Kalil or Okung, his five-year, $58.8 million deal would be an overpay in nearly any other offseason.

In the case of the Chargers, Vikings, and Panthers, something needed to be done along the line, and for all three that meant doling out onerous deals to players with spotty track records. Both Minnesota and Los Angeles ranked among the league’s worst units last fall; overpaying for a slight upgrade was worth it to both franchises. For the Vikings, this offseason’s spending spree also included handing former Carolina tackle Mike Remmers — whom the Panthers signed off the Rams practice squad in 2014 — a five-year, $30 million deal with $10.5 million guaranteed.

Keeping track of all the recent signings can feel like playing a game of Musical Linemen, particularly in the case of Remmers and Kalil, who are essentially swapping teams. The abundance of cap space led to huge deals for players who have underperformed, and that was hardly the only effect. With so many general managers being able to toss around cash like oil barons, teams had the flexibility to remake their lines on the fly, cherry-picking the guys they covet rather than sticking with known commodities. The Vikings replacing Reiff with Kalil is a useful example, but what happened in Detroit is even more fascinating.

The right side of the Lions line last season consisted of Larry Warford at guard and Reiff at tackle. Both were desired on the open market, with Reiff sniffing the top five in guaranteed money among left tackles and Warford securing more in guarantees than the Steelers’ David DeCastro got in his 2016 extension. Still, in building the new version of its line, Detroit chose to invest resources elsewhere. By swapping Warford for T.J. Lang (at a similar price, though Lang is four years older) and signing the slightly cheaper Rick Wagner to replace Reiff, Detroit arguably got better at both positions while spending about $3.5 million less in guaranteed money than it would have if it had tried to retain Warford and Reiff.

The Lions were able to withstand losing two solid, homegrown players and maybe even get better in the process. That’s rare, and it signals not only the shifting nature of free agency in 2017, but also the league’s changing priorities.

Two ingredients — teams having money to spend and prized players being available to cash in — were necessary to facilitate the line rearranging that happened in the past week. Those weren’t the only factors, though. Front offices surely drew motivation from last season’s on-field developments, as both the Cowboys and Raiders broke out as surprise contenders thanks in large part to offenses that were constructed around their lines.

The Cowboys famously spent three first-round draft picks in four years on offensive linemen, assembling the best unit in football in the process. The Raiders signed All-Pro mauling guard Kelechi Osemele to a market-setting five-year, $58.5 million deal (with $25.4 million guaranteed) last offseason, officially making their group the most expensive in the league. The methods and resources were different, but the message was the same: It’s worth spending on the big guys up front.

(Joel Bitonio) Getty Images
(Joel Bitonio) Getty Images

No team followed that ideal more closely this offseason than the Browns. In signing J.C. Tretter (center) and Kevin Zeitler (guard) and extending Joel Bitonio (guard), Cleveland dished out $65.2 million in guaranteed money to offensive linemen. Zeitler, the 27-year-old former first-round pick by the Bengals, reset the market for his position by inking a deal worth $12 million annually that includes $31.5 million in guarantees. The only players who sit between Zeitler and Bitonio ($23 million guaranteed) on the NFL’s list of highest-paid guards by guaranteed money are Osemele and Leary. Within a span of 24 hours last week, the Browns went from having a hole at right guard and a left guard set to make $1.7 million in the final year of his rookie deal to having two of the four most expensive guards in the league.

Factor in the contract for superstar left tackle Joe Thomas, and Cleveland now has $47 million tied up in its offensive line, the highest mark in the league and a huge jump from its ranking of 22nd ($15 million) last season. Just like that, the Browns went from having a league-average offensive line to one of the best. Entering free agency with $102 million in cap room, GM Sashi Brown decided to shape his roster around the offensive line.

The influx of talent to places like Cleveland (or Denver, with its additions of guard Ronald Leary and tackle Menelik Watson) means that other teams had to rummage for replacements. In Leary’s case, that replacement (La’El Collins) was already on the Cowboys’ roster, but Dallas is a good example of how quickly a dominant line can be left searching for answers. Collins has a reservoir of ability and opened last season as the Cowboys’ starter at left guard, but to date he’s been far less reliable than Leary. And beyond losing Leary, Dallas will head into next fall without right tackle Doug Free, who announced his retirement last week. Its contingency plan at the position appears to be 2015 third-round pick Chaz Green, who has two career starts. Compared to the limited but predictable contributions of Free, the unknown of Green is an unwelcome alternative.

Then there’s the Bengals’ situation. Along with losing Zeitler, they also watched longtime left tackle Andrew Whitworth take a three-year, $33.8 million deal from the Rams. Cincinnati’s front office has been preparing for life after Whitworth for a while; in 2015 it used first- (Cedric Ogbuehi) and second-round (Jake Fisher) picks on offensive tackles despite boasting one of the league’s best and most complete lines at the time. With Whitworth and right tackle Andre Smith both leaving in free agency (Smith just re-signed with the team after spending a year in Minnesota), this is the season that Fisher and Ogbuehi were expected to fill full-time starting roles. The problem is that so far neither has proved to be a good option protecting the edge. The uncertainty in draft picks’ development has the potential to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans. The Bengals sketched out a future beyond Whitworth and Zeitler, but two years later nothing about that sketch has moved to becoming reality.

That’s an issue the Browns, Lions, and others that spent big along the line this week won’t have to consider. Free agency encourages teams to overpay for top talent, and for players like Zeitler, Lang, and Reiff, that price comes with a certainty tax. For organizations like Cleveland and Detroit, though, the cost is worth it — they’ve raised the floor for their respective offenses.