Top free agents: Offensive linemen
1. Tyson Clabo: OT, Atlanta
Entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent, Clabo will look for his payday this offseason. Clabo is a physical mauler that has been a big reason for Michael Turner’s success with the Falcons, but he has also shown a steady improvement each season as a pass protector.
Potential landing spot: Atlanta
With Atlanta making a blockbuster trade to select Julio Jones in the first round of the NFL Draft, the Falcons proved they are willing to give their franchise quarterback all the weapons he needs to carry them into the future. To do so, they will need Clabo to continue to carve out running lanes and keep Matt Ryan upright for that explosive offense to fire on all cylinders.
2. Carl Nicks: G, New Orleans
After making Jahri Evans the league’s highest paid guard, it was Carl Nicks that had the better season. The numbers back up that claim as New Orleans’ running backs were much more effective running to the left side rather than the right.
Potential landing spot: New Orleans
New Orleans will need to make some critical decisions along its offensive line in order to keep Nicks, but I believe his value is too high to let him escape. The Saints reinvested in the running game with the selection of Mark Ingram in the draft, and with his inside-power running style, Nicks’ value only increases. Instead, they will likely part ways with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle after a disappointing season that included multiple false start penalties.
3. Doug Free: OT, Dallas
When Dallas released long time starter Flozell Adams, they thought they had his replacement in Doug Free. That may still be true, but the athleticism of Tyron Smith obviously attracted the attention of Jerry Jones during the draft.
Potential landing spot: Dallas
Even with the drafting of Tyron Smith, I still take Dallas at its word that Doug Free is their No. 1 priority once free agency resumes. The CBA negotiations will have a huge impact on Free’s free-agency eligibility. The shortened time period for Tyron Smith to prove he can be the team's immediate starting left tackle will benefit Free's negotiating power with the Cowboys’ front office. Also, the structure of free agency may allow him to hit the open market one year earlier, and therefore also drive his price higher.
4. Logan Mankins: G, New England
In his shortened 2010 season, Mankins re-energized the New England running game with two unknown ball carriers: BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. That combination led to a rushing attack that produced 123-yards per game, good for ninth in the league.
Potential landing spots: Chicago, Miami, New England
Mankins is obviously unhappy with his contract situation in New England, but for the second year in a row, the Patriots have placed the franchise tag on him. With the current rules in place, Chicago would have to give up two first-round picks to acquire Mankins, and I think that's a little rich for the Bears, especially after drafting Gabe Carimi in the first round. Miami is also a possibility for Mankins, but like the Bears, two first-round picks is too rich and they were pleased with landing draft pick Mike Pouncey.
5. Jared Gaither: OT, Baltimore
Gaither is coming back from a season-ending back injury that allowed Baltimore to slide Michael Oher to the left side for the 2010 season. Even with the return of Gaither, Oher would be likely to stay there for the 2011 season.
Potential landing spots: Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City
Baltimore is still unwilling to rule out the possibility of re-signing Gaither, but it's unlikely to do so for big money. With Oher making the transition to the left side, they will now be able to negotiate with Gaither as a right tackle. Cleveland and Kansas City are two teams that may make a run on Gaither, but I think someone you’ll see later in this list makes more sense for Kansas City, which leaves Gaither to the Browns. Cleveland ranked 29th and 20th in passing yards and rushing yards in 2010, but focused on defense with its first two picks in the NFL Draft. The Browns have a dominant left tackle in Joe Thomas, but right tackle is a position of need with the aging John St. Clair (33 years old) as the only player listed on their roster.
6. Davin Joseph: G, Tampa Bay
Joseph was well on his way to his best year as a pro in 2010, but he fractured his foot after starting the first 11 games of the season. Joseph is a superior run blocker with better than average pass protection skills, and will be a sought-after interior lineman.
Potential landing spots: Chicago, Miami, Tampa Bay
Chicago will look to improve its offensive line with anyone that hits the open market, but the Bears showed steady improvement last year and after drafting Gabe Carimi, they don’t have to overpay for a specific position. Miami had the 21st-ranked rushing attack last season, and they may be interested in adding another interior lineman to go along with draft pick, Mike Pouncey. Tampa Bay still makes the most sense as a young team ready to make the final steps to becoming an annual playoff contender, and I believe Joseph will want to be a part of that.
7. Ryan Kalil: C, Carolina
Kalil has been a steady performer for a team that basically has holes everywhere else on its roster. As he is playing out his rookie contract, he's still young enough to be a key contributor to the rebuilding process in Carolina.
Potential landing spot: Carolina
Just like the Panthers will make the no-brainer decision to re-sign defensive end Charles Johnson, they will do the same with Kalil on the offensive side of the ball.
8. Harvey Dahl: G, Atlanta
Dahl is one of the most physical run blockers in the game, and he plays with that nasty style that offensive line coaches love to have in the trenches.
Potential landing spot: Atlanta
The Falcons will resign Harvey Dahl for the very same reasons they retain Tyson Clabo.
9. Matt Light: OT, New England
Matt Light was named to his third Pro Bowl in 2010, but has probably already seen his best days as a player. Light is 33 years old and coming off an offseason shoulder surgery.
Potential landing spots: Kansas City, New England
With New England drafting Nate Solder in the first round, it became obvious the Patriots are looking for Light’s future replacement, but I'm not sure that makes him totally expendable. I look for the Pats to offer him a one or two-year contract once free agency begins. Whether or not that will be attractive to Light depends on the market. The Kansas City Chiefs are an option, with Scott Piloi’s former ties to the Patriot organization and his familiarity with Light. The Chiefs used a second-round pick to select interior lineman, Rodney Hudson, but that still leaves a pretty big need at the offensive tackle position.
10. Willie Colon: OT, Pittsburgh
Colon missed all of the 2010 season with a torn achilles, but had started 50 straight games before that. While the 2010 rushing numbers were nine yards per game better than the 2009 version, I still believe Colon adds value to an offensive line that was decimated by injuries and reshuffled time and time again throughout the season.
Potential landing spots: Pittsburgh
Colon’s injury will hurt his value during the free-agency period, but I think the Steelers will look at his entire body of work and realize he is still the best blocker they have. With that said, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of kicking him inside.
ON THE BUBBLE:
Jammal Brown: OT, Washington
Daryn Colledge : G, Green Bay
Jermon Bushrod: OT, New Orleans