A look at potential free agents by position heading into the NFL shopping season. This installment features the offensive line.
By Jay Skurski
NEWS SPORTS REPORTER
The biggest decision the Buffalo Bills have to make at free agent this offseason is what to do with veteran guard Richie Incognito.
It won’t be an easy call.
Incognito played on a one-year deal in 2015 and ended up being one of the biggest bargains in the NFL. That won’t happen again.
Because of his Pro Bowl season, the 32-year-old has positioned himself to land one more lucrative contract. He’s well within his rights to seek every last dollar.
The Bills might very well want Incognito to take a “hometown” discount on his next contract because they threw him a lifeline when his NFL career was in danger of drowning.
If Incognito is unwilling to do that, it’s easy to see how this negotiation will be tricky for General Manager Doug Whaley and Co. Whaley does not have a history of paying big money to guards – especially ones who will be 33 at the start of the upcoming season.
Of course, Whaley has made it clear that keeping the left side of the offensive line together is his biggest priority in free agency. The first step in that was using the franchise tag on left tackle Cordy Glenn. The next step will be to re-sign Incognito.
Here is an overview of the pending unrestricted free-agent crop along the offensive line, and a look at how the Buffalo Bills may approach each position:
Centers: Manuel Ramirez, Detroit; Alex Mack, Cleveland; Stefen Wisniewski, Jacksonville; Fernando Velasco, Carolina; Ben Jones, Houston; Gino Gradkowski, Atlanta; Josh LeRibeus, Washington; Lyle Sendlein, Arizona; Tim Barnes, L.A. Rams; Joe Looney, Tennessee.
The skinny: Ramirez played in all 16 games in 2015, but made just seven starts. At 33, he’s got a lot of miles on him and is likely looking at a one-year contract for a team. … Mack took advantage of an opt-out clause in his contract and should get a huge deal on the open market. The Browns are expected to make a strong effort to retain him. … Wisniewski, who played decently on a one-year contract with the Jaguars last season at just 27, will likely be looking to land a long-term deal. … Jones has started 32 games in a row for the Texans the past two seasons. … LeRibeus is a natural guard who moved to center for the Redskins after an injury. … Sendlein could move on because the Cardinals are expected to move former first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper to center. … Barnes played more than 900 snaps last season for the Rams. … Looney previously played for Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman in San Francisco.
Guards: Richie Incognito, Buffalo; Evan Mathis, Denver; Jeff Allen, Kansas City; Ramon Foster, Pittsburgh; Geoff Schwartz, New York Giants; Michael Harris, Minnesota; Chris Chester, Atlanta; Jahri Evans, New Orleans; Patrick Omameh, Chicago; Brandon Brooks, Houston; Alex Boone, San Francisco; Vladimir Ducasse, Chicago; Zane Beadles, Jacksonville; J.R. Sweezy, Seattle; Ted Larsen, Arizona.
The skinny: Mathis finished with the highest run-blocking grade in the NFL according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. … Allen had three straight poor seasons in a row for the Chiefs, but picked a good time in a contract year to turn it around. … A solid pass protector throughout his career, Foster’s run blocking improved in 2015, increasing his value. … Schwartz had two injury-plagued seasons in New York, the last of which ended with a broken ankle. He’ll be eager to show teams he’s healthy and can still contribute. … Harris graded out as the 22nd-best guard in the NFL, according to PFF, in his first season after moving from tackle.
Chester is 33 years old and coming off shoulder surgery, but fit well in the Falcons’ zone-blocking scheme. … Evans has made the Pro Bowl six times in the last 10 seasons, but declined to take a pay cut and was released by the Saints. … Omameh found a home in Chicago last year after bouncing around the league. He’s a fringe starter, but provides good depth. … Brooks is one of the top guards in football and will be looking to land a huge payday.
Boone is both tough and durable, and knows Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s system well. … Ducasse got benched in Chicago in favor of Omameh, but is a respected veteran presence. … Beadles made it just two seasons into a $30 million contract signed with the Jaguars in 2014. … Sweezy is inconsistent and struggles in pass protection. … The Cardinals have invested big money on the left side of the offensive line, so they probably won’t want to break the bank for Larsen.
Tackles: Mitchell Schwartz, Cleveland; Donald Penn, Oakland; Kelechi Osemele, Baltimore; Joe Barksdale, San Diego; Russell Okung, Seattle; Jermon Bushrod, Chicago; Khalif Barnes, Oakland; Byron Bell, Tennessee; Chris Clark, Houston; Sam Young, Jacksonville; Bobby Massie, Arizona; Andre Smith, Cincinnati; Ryan Harris, Denver; Jamon Meredith, Tennessee; Chris Hairston, San Diego.
The skinny: Schwartz hasn’t missed a single snap in his four-year career and was named to Pro Football Focus’ All-Pro second team in 2015. … Penn quietly has had two straight good seasons with the Raiders, ranking as one of the 10 best left tackles in the league, according to PFF. … Osemele is best suited at guard, but has the versatility to play either tackle spot. He’ll likely land one of the biggest contracts among offensive linemen because of that.
Okung is representing himself in free agency – an interesting approach that other players will likely pay close attention to. … Barksdale played on a one-year contract for slightly more than $1 million last season and will likely land a much better deal this year. … Bushrod was released by the Bears last season after failing his physical. … Barnes has amazingly signed seven one-year contracts in a row. … Bell started 16 games for the Titans after leaving the Panthers. … Clark started 21 games for the Broncos in 2013-14, but just four games last year after being traded to Houston. … Young is a former Bill who has played in 36 games the past three years with the Jaguars.
Massie is likely to be replaced in Arizona by former first round-draft pick D.J. Humphries. … Smith is a lumbering right tackle who won’t win many foot races, but as given the Bengals could play since being a first-round draft pick in 2009. … Harris has bounced between three teams the past three years, but started all 16 games for the Super Bowl champions. … Meredith is another former Bill, one of nine teams he’s played for. … Hairston started 11 games in his first season with San Diego after three years with the Bills.
Who might fit the Bills: This all depends on what happens with Incognito. If he prices himself out of Buffalo, the Bills will need to fill their starting left guard position. Boone would make sense in that he’s worked with Roman before, and should come at a price that’s less than what Incognito will command. If Buffalo wanted to go a more veteran route, Evans is a player the Bills have been rumored to have an interest in before. If Buffalo wants to get younger at guard, Omameh gave the Bears decent play last season, but wasn’t close to the level of Incognito. The Bills are set at center, while tackle likely won’t be a priority with Glenn getting the franchise tag and three players – Seantrel Henderson, Jordan Mills and Cyrus Kouandjio – expected to compete on the right side.