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2018 NFL Free Agency: Evaluating the Guards

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Taking a look at some of the top guards who may be available when the free agency “legal tampering” window opens on March 12th.

Los Angeles Rams v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

We are less than one month away from the opening of the “legal tampering“ period of free agency on March 12th. Over the next few weeks we will preview the positions that the Titans could have some interest in, starting today with guards.

I’m starting with guards because Titans currently only have one under contract for the 2018 season that spent any time on the active roster in 2017 — last year’s 6th round pick Corey Levin. Practice squad guards Tyler Marz and Cody Wichmann are on futures contracts, but it would be a surprise if either of them were to end up on the 53-man roster at the start of next season. All three of the guards that saw snaps for the team in 2017 are entering free agency. Starting right guard Josh Kline and backup Brian Schwenke will be unrestricted free agents, while starting left guard Quinton Spain will be a restricted free agent.

That leaves the Titans with some important decisions to make regarding the future of their interior line. Do they bring back Spain and Kline in the name of continuity? Or do they look for an upgrade from outside the organization? The switch to a pre-dominantly zone blocking run game further clouds this issue as Jon Robinson will need to include some projection of his current players in a different system in his analysis.

PFF ranked the Titans line as a whole 3rd in the NFL in Pass Blocking Efficiency — a measure of sacks/hurries/hits per pass block snap — but Football Outsiders’ run blocking metric, Adjusted Line Yards (ALY), was far less kind, ranking the Titans offensive line 23rd in the NFL when it came to creating yards for their running backs. The ALY numbers get particularly ugly when you isolate the runs that didn’t go behind Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan. That largely matches the eye test for me as the Titans did a pretty good job of keeping Marcus Mariota clean, but really struggled to create room for DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry up front consistenly in Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie’s power running scheme.

A nagging turf toe early in the year and a bad back late in the year seemed to limit Quinton Spain in 2017, but when healthy he still played like a top 10 left guard. Combine that with his status as an RFA and it is extremely likely that he’s back with the Titans in 2018. I tend to think Spain will transition to a zone blocking scheme just fine. His pro day testing results suggest that he is far more athletic than he often gets credit for due to his shear size.

We are going to proceed with the assumption that Spain is back with the Titans next year and I will provide my completely unsolicited advice to Jon Robinson at the end of this post for what to do with the other starting guard spot. It is worth noting that we are still almost a month away from the start of free agency so a few of these guys may end up being re-signed to their current teams and off the market before March 12th, but my guess is that most of the guys that I profiled below will make it on to the market.

THE STAR

Andrew Norwell | Panthers

Norwell is going to be looking to become the league’s highest paid guard this offseason. After a successful college career at Ohio State where he played both tackle and guard, he went undrafted in the 2014 NFL Draft despite being a two-time All-Big Ten performer due to concerns about his strength and athleticism.

Those concerns have since been put to rest as Norwell made the Panthers 53-man roster as a UDFA in 2014, was inserted in to the starting lineup 7 games in to his rookie year, and hasn’t left since. His PFF grades over his four year career are 82.8, 84.6, 84.2, and 88.8, showing remarkable consistency. His effort in 2017 earned him first team All-Pro recognition as he was the only offensive linemen in the NFL to allow zero sacks AND zero QB hits per PFF’s metrics.

Norwell is a big guard at 6’-6” tall and 325 pounds and he plays like it. His play strength is the best facet of his game and it helps make up for his very average-to-below-average athleticism. Norwell does bring a gritty, “nasty” mentality to his play which would fit in well with some of the other characters along the Titans offensive line. However, his lack of mobility is a concern with the Titans transitioning to a more zone heavy approach.

So why would he be available? Well, the Panthers already have three massive contracts on their offensive line with left tackle Matt Kalil (5 years, $55M), center Ryan Kalil (2 years, $16.75M), and right guard Trai Turner (4 years, $45M) all ranking among the top 9 highest paid Panthers. Giving Norwell the contract he’s going to be looking for would result in them committing about $40M per season to their offensive line for next season. Additionally, the Panthers already have a replacement ready to go on their roster in 2017 2nd round pick Taylor Moton. With starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei hitting the market this offseason and a need to give Cam Newton some additional weapons on offense there is a good chance Carolina’s few available cap dollars are earmarked to go elsewhere.

Norwell is going to be a hot commodity if the Panthers don’t re-sign him before March 12th so if the Titans decide to get involved they will have to be willing to pay top dollar. The Giants are already rumored to be lining up a bid for Norwell which would make sense considering the presence of new GM Dave Gettleman who was in the same job with the Panthers when they found Norwell as a UDFA. Other O-line-needy teams like the 49ers, Jets, Colts, Dolphins, Bengals, Cardinals, Seahawks, Lions, Falcons, Jaguars, and Texans could also get involved with Norwell. The Titans have the cap room to make a run at a guy like this and also have a possible built-in advantage with Mike Vrabel, Shane Bowen, and Kerry Coombs all being on the Ohio State staff while Norwell was there. Norwell is from Cincinnati so a chance to play for the hometown Bengals could be a lure as well.

He’s certainly the best overall guard in this free agent class, but I have my doubts about whether the Titans will want to wade in to what might be a massive bidding war for him. If you are going to pay a guard $12+ million per year, he better be a perfect fit for your offense and that’s not the case here.

Spotrac Projection: 5 years, $59M

Given his sterling track record and the number of teams that need offensive line help, I can’t see a scenario where Norwell exits free agency as anything other than the highest paid guard in NFL history. My guess is that he gets something closer to 5 years, $65M before its all said and done.

THE INJURY RISKS

Justin Pugh | Giants

If the Titans decide to go outside the organization to find a starting guard, Justin Pugh is an absolute perfect fit in my opinion. He’s played three different positions — left tackle, right tackle, and left guard — over five seasons for the Giants since becoming the #19 overall pick as a tackle in the 2013 NFL Draft. He has turned in his best work at guard and that’s where he should stick long term, however he was solid as a tackle when used there early in his career. That versatility would be handy for a certain Nashville-based team who might not have their starting right tackle back from injury in time for the start of next season.

Even better, is Pugh’s fit for the zone blocking scheme that is coming to Tennessee. The primary reason for his transition from tackle to guard was his height and arm length, not his athleticism. He has the quickness to play tackle, but he’s stuck in a guard’s frame at 6’-4” and 307 pounds. In fact, NFL.com’s draft analysts basically laid out Pugh’s future on his draft profile page from 2013:

Pugh is a seasoned starter at offensive tackle with very good movement skills. However, he lacks adequate arm length and size to stick at offensive tackle going forward. His best fit will likely be as an offensive guard in a zone-blocking scheme.

Additionally, Pugh is known as a highly intelligent, thoughtful player who is a natural leader. He would fit right in with the tight-knit group of offensive linemen for the Titans.

The big, glaring question for Pugh is whether he can stay healthy long term. He has missed at least one game due to injury in each of the last four seasons, including 13 games missed over the last two. Despite those alarming numbers, the injuries have not been recurring (a quad injury, a concussion, a sprained knee, and a back injury) and none of them have required surgery to fix. That at least offers some hope that his missed time has been the result of bad luck rather than a sign of a fragile body.

If Pugh didn’t have the injury concerns surrounding him, he would be the guy getting the biggest guard contract in NFL history, not Norwell. So that leaves us with the question of whether the market discount ends up being worth the risk that he continues to be in and out of the lineup at his next stop. Pugh grew up in Philly, went to college at Syracuse, and has spent the past five years in New York so he’s a northeast guy through and through. However, a chance to win is also a priority in his decision making.

“I want to win. I want to win now,” Pugh said to Giants reporters on Monday. “I’m excited for the first chance to choose where I play and the situation that I’m in.”

Considering the fact that the Giants new GM and new offensive coordinator both came from Carolina, it seems pretty likely that Andrew Norwell would be their preference and they pretty much certainly aren’t going to pay both guards top dollar when they desperately need tackle help as well. Pugh, like Norwell, is likely to generate a lot of interest from other OL-needy teams, though his price tag should be a little lower. His college coach, Doug Marrone, is likely to be looking to upgrade the Jaguars offensive line and Pugh also started his career under Tom Coughlin. The Jaguars seem like the clear team to beat here.

Spotrac Projection: 4 years, $24M

That seems ludicrously low to me. I think Pugh is much more likely to get a deal for something close to 4 years, $40M with heavy incentives past year one to protect the team signing him from injuries. If the market doesn’t materialize like he wants, I could also see him taking a one year “prove it” deal similar to what Dontari Poe and Alshon Jeffery did last offseason.

Pugh is the single best fit from a talent to scheme perspective for the Titans, but we know that Jon Robinson puts a premium on players who stay healthy. While none of Pugh’s injuries have been catastrophic, the frequency of them may deter Tennessee from pursuing aggressively enough to land him. Additionally, once I remove my two-tone blue glasses, it’s tough to see the draw here. Jacksonville offers him a chance to re-unite with Marrone and Coughlin. The Giants and Jets offer the chance to stay in New York. He may view teams like the Seahawks and Falcons as better opportunities to win.

I’d be thrilled to land Pugh here, but I honestly think it’s a pipe dream unless Jon Robinson decides he’s going to outbid the market for him.

Jack Mewhort | Colts

You can consider Mewhort the poor man’s version of Pugh. He came in to the league as a tackle, but converted to guard shortly after and played well there. He has been one of the few bright spots on the Colts offensive line over the past four seasons, regularly grading out as an above average guard per PFF. However, like Pugh, injuries have slowed what looked to be a promising career in the NFL. Mewhort’s injuries are even more alarming than Pugh’s too with multiple surgeries on both knees over the past two seasons. This past season ended in mid-October when his surgically repaired knee began swelling again and a follow up surgery was required. His knees are giant red flags for any team looking to invest in him so his medical evaluations will likely be the key to his next contract.

When he is healthy and on the field, Mewhort is a pretty good NFL guard. He’s not as athletic as Pugh, but he has played well in a primarily zone blocking scheme in Indianapolis for the last four years.

He was Norwell’s former teammate at Ohio State so you can draw the same connections to Vrabel, Coombs, and Bowen that we did for Norwell above. Depending on their relationship, that could be a draw for him in Nashville.

Spotrac Projection: None

Spotrac only offers projections for the top few free agents and Mewhort didn’t make the cut. I don’t see any way that he ends up on anything other than a one year deal anyway. My guess is some team gives him 1 year, $5M and hopes this latest knee operation sticks. If the medicals were OK and the team thought he could make it through a season, I actually think he’d be a really good fit for the Titans.

Jonathan Cooper | Cowboys

Most will remember Cooper as the “other great guard” in the 2013 draft class along with former Titans guard Chance Warmack. Cooper was actually selected ahead of Warmack, going #7 overall to the Cardinals. However, his injury issues started almost immediately upon entering the league. First it was a broken leg suffered in the preseason before his rookie year. Then he battled a wrist injury, then a knee. When he was on the field early in his career he was largely ineffective. The Cardinals decided to move on midway through his third season when they included him in the trade that brought Chandler Jones from the Patriots to Arizona. Cooper didn’t stick in New England long though as he was released after a foot injury. After his release he caught on with the Browns, starting a few games there towards the end of 2016.

As a free agent last summer he signed with the Cowboys on a 1 year, $2M deal with an opportunity to compete for their open left guard spot. After losing a camp battle with Chaz Green he started the season as a backup. However, once Green went down with an injury Cooper took advantage of the opportunity and played well enough to retain the job for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, he got rolled up on by a defender in the Cowboys meaningless Week 17 game against the Eagles and damaged his MCL. He had surgery shortly after the season ended and is expected to be ready before the start of training camp this summer, but it adds a layer of complication to his free agency.

The Cowboys reportedly wanted him back prior to his injury so they could still try to retain him. Similar to Mewhort, Cooper is a really good fit for the Titans on the field, but who knows how often he would be available. You also have to wonder how much athleticism these guys will have left after all those surgeries.

Spotrac Projection: None

Cooper is essentially in the same spot as Mewhort. Both are guys that have shown they are capable of being quality starting guards in the NFL, but both have been injured too often to stick in a starting lineup for more than a few games. I would guess he signs another one year deal somewhere — possibly Dallas — and tries to put together a 16 game season finally. It’s hard to see the sense in the Titans taking a risk this big.

THE RECLAMATION PROJECTS

Xavier Su’a-Filo | Texans

Su’a-Filo is a former 33rd overall pick by the Texans from the 2014 draft and he’s been a complete disaster in Houston. His career was hampered by injuries early, but he doesn’t end up in the injury risk category because he has strung together back-to-back 16 game seasons in 2016 and 2017. His problem is that he has just flat out been awful on the field. His PFF grades over his four year career read like a Minnesota winter weather forecast: 43.4, 42.8, 44.9, 35.8.

So why would we want him here? Well we probably don’t, but once upon a time this guy was a supremely athletic guard prospect who many thought could be a 1st round pick. Mike Vrabel, Pat O’Hara, and Shane Bowen will know him well from their time in Houston so if they think a change of scenery and some different coaching can unlock his tremendous potential I could see this being a fit.

Spotrac Projection: None

From a contract perspective it likely won’t take much commitment to get him. Houston’s offense runs a ton of zone so it’s not like this would be a scheme switch for him, but that’s almost more concerning because we’ve seen him be awful in it for multiple years now. You certainly wouldn’t sign him with the idea that he’s a plug-and-play starter, but if you wanted to give him a chance to come in and compete for a backup spot similar to what the Cowboys did with Cooper last season, that could be a nice pickup.

Marcus Martin | Browns

Martin is a fascinating guy. Coming out of college at USC, he was widely considered the top center prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft and was even invited to the green room on draft day. Unfortunately, he had to wait until pick #70 to hear his name called by the 49ers. He was slated to start right away in San Francisco, but a knee sprain suffered in the preseason before his rookie year delayed his debut until the middle of his first season. He struggled with that knee for most of that year and his play on the field reflected it. In 2015 he mostly stayed healthy, but again played poorly. 2016 was the same story and that resulted in Martin being released last March. He was claimed off waivers by the Browns, but he never appeared in a game there as he sat behind Cleveland’s excellent starting interior line.

The interesting thing about Martin is his age. He’s just 24 years old despite heading in to his 5th year in the league and he won’t turn 25 until late in the 2018 season. He was just 20 years old starting on a bad team in the NFL which is a very tough situation. His NFL.com draft profile even hints at the need for him to develop rather than being thrown in to the fire immediately.

Outstanding-sized, barrel-chested finesse pivot with center-guard versatility. Grades out highly as a position-sustain blocker and possesses untappped strength and power in his body. Lacks desirable grit, toughness and finishing strength to maximize his talent and is stronger than he plays. Has instant-starter potential as a center or right guard, but could stand to benefit from some time to be groomed.

He’s the kind of low-risk, high-reward signing that could make a lot of sense as a high potential backup. He is definitely not the type that should be signed with the idea of handing him a starting role.

Spotrac Projection: None

He won’t be expensive to sign given his track record, so like Su’a-Filo I could see the Titans seeing him as a high-upside backup option if they aren’t convinced that Corey Levin can be that guy in 2018.

THE BAD FITS

Zach Fulton | Chiefs

Fulton is a former University of Tennessee standout so that may earn him a lot of attention from Titans fans as the free agency process gets started, but let me tell you this is a bad fit. Fulton is a perfectly fine guard/center in the NFL. In fact, he may end up getting a pretty good contract from someone in free agency in March. I just don’t think it should be the Titans.

Fulton is a very coachable, likable player who has outplayed his 6th round draft position already, but he’s just not a very good athlete. He’s been used as a utility lineman in KC and done well in that role, but I struggle to see him excelling in a zone blocking scheme that requires him to be on the move regularly.

Spotrac Projection: None

I have seen at least one Chiefs outlet stating that they think Fulton could command as much as 4 years, $25-30M on the market this year. I tend to think he’ll get less than that, but either way I don’t think the Titans should have interest here.

D.J. Fluker | Giants

Fluker is another former highly drafted tackle that got transitioned to guard. However, unlike his teammate Justin Pugh, Fluker has seemingly played worse inside than he did outside. The Chargers drafted him #11 overall out of Alabama back in 2013 and immediately plugged him in as a starting tackle. He stuck outside for two seasons before bumping in to right guard for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. After exercising his 5th year option before the 2016 season, the Chargers bailed and cut him prior to last March to avoid having him on the books for $10M+ for the 2017 season. Instead he landed in New York where he started off as a backup before injuries pushed him in to the starting lineup at right guard. His season ended with a toe injury that landed him on IR after just 6 starts.

Fluker is a mammoth man at 6’-5” and about 340 pounds, but he is exactly the opposite of what the Titans need. Unlike Quinton Spain — who is similarly sized but can really move —Fluker is aggressively non-athletic. He is your prototype for the player that doesn’t fit in a zone blocking scheme. You can be sure that the Titans won’t be his landing spot in March.

THE BEST OPTION

Josh Kline | Titans

That’s right, the Titans best option is already on the roster. Josh Kline has probably been the weakest link in a very strong Titans offensive lineman over the past two seasons since taking over for Chance Warmack, but he’s been above average compared to the rest of the NFL. His PFF grades in 2016 and 2017 were 79.3 and 75.8. That 2017 grade was good enough for 22nd in the NFL among guards.

My belief is that Kline will benefit from the move to a zone blocking scheme. The biggest hole in Kline’s game, in my opinion, is his lack of anchor and inability to generate movement at the point of attack. He simply gets blown back in to the backfield too often as a run blocker. This is also his biggest issue in the passing game, but it shows up far less often there than it does when the team tries to run behind him. That issue could be mitigated by a zone blocking scheme that will ask him to move laterally and sometimes get to the second level more than it will ask him to blow defensive linemen off the ball.

Kline isn’t the most athletic guard you’ll ever see, but he is above average compared to most of his peers. His pro day results when he came out of Kent State in 2013 are really strong.

40 Yard Dash: 5.06 sec (88th percentile)

20 Yard Shuttle: 4.59 sec (68th percentile)

3 Cone Drill: 7.63 sec (70th percentile)

A 40-yard dash for an offensive lineman is mostly useless, but it does point to a guy who can move. A 4.75 second 20-yard shuttle and a 7.75 second 3-cone are generally thought to be good marks for a starting NFL offensive lineman and Kline exceeded them both.

I’m not here to tell you that Kline is going to be Zach Martin or David DeCastro all of a sudden in a zone scheme, but I do think he fits. His resume is as strong as any guard on the market this year besides Norwell and Pugh and he should be far cheaper if the Titans can get him to re-sign prior to March 12th. We all know how close this group of offensive linemen are — they hang out outside of the Titans facility — and continuity is important even as the team transitions to a new scheme. I would expect that Kline would want to be back in Nashville if that’s a possibility.

Spotrac Projection: 3 years, $30M

Despite all the nice things I just said about him, this is entirely too much money for Josh Kline. If this is truly where his market is, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Titans let him walk. I would happily take Kline for something like a 4 year, $24M deal that’s light on guarantees past two years though and I really think that’s closer to where his value is on the open market.

So my completely unsolicited recommendation for Jon Robinson is to run it back. I’m pretty high on Corey Levin as a zone blocking center/guard option as well so they may not even need to bring in a backup from outside the organization. I would love to see Levin push Kline or Jones out of a spot as early as this offseason — and I think that’s possible — but even if he doesn’t we could do far worse up front in 2018 than year three of Lewan-Spain-Jones-Kline-Conklin and we wouldn’t have to break the bank to do it.