2006 NFL Free Agents: Offensive Linemen
By: Thomas J Gersey
1. Steve Hutchinson, RG, Seattle
Hutchinson is widely considered the prize in this year's group of free agent offensive linemen. A solid, technically sound guard, Hutchinson won't wow you by obliterating pass rushers. He will however hold his ground against anybody in the league. Still only 28 years old, he has become a perennial Pro Bowler, and was an All-Pro this past season. 6-5, 313 lbs, he is built like a left tackle, but he uses his size as leverage on the right side of the line to hold his ground and prevent the opponent from peeling off and making plays. He plays under control, getting good first steps in the run game, while getting off the line in the passing game, allowing him to create proper holes for his runners, and giving his passers adequate time to get through their reads. He also pulls well, and would be a great fit on a team focused on the ground game while supplanting it with a conservative passing game.
GOOD FITS: Seattle, Minnesota, Washington, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Oakland, New York Jets
EARLY PICK: Seattle has been going through this for some time now, knowing that their best players are going to be free agents. First it was Walter Jones, then Hasselbeck and Alexander. Now Hutchinson creates a dilemma as both he and Alexander are free agents this season. Many consider re-signing Alexander a no-brainer, but there have been some in the know who believe maintaining the core of the offensive line and handing the job to Maurice Morris may be the more prudent move. Most likely, the 'Hawks will give a long term deal to Alexander, while franchising Hutchinson for this season, then weighing their options next year. They have needs at defensive end and wide receiver, so they will have some decisions to make. If Seattle does let Hutchinson walk, Washington and Minnesota seem like perfect fits. Both need a right guard, and with the potential departure of Culpepper in Minnesota, both run a similar ball control offense, predicated on minimizing mistakes, that would highlight Hutchinson's skills. If neither is a fit, Cincy, Tampa, Oakland and the Jets could all use a Pro Bowl guard.
2. LeCharles Bentley, C, New Orleans
Bentley has good size at 6'2, 313, but it better known for his quickness. Quick footwork gets him out of his stance, and out blocking linebackers when necessary. His is lithe and swift off the snap, and is the rare center who can get out and pull. For all of his size, he does tend to get pushed around by very physical nose tackles, as his slight lack of lower body strength keeps him from maintaining position against a fierce bull rush. However, Bentley is tenacious and fiesty, and will not give up even when he appears to be overmatched. He is smart and consistent, and makes good adjustments at the line. Only 26, Bentley is better when he can get out and move, unblocked, and would fit best with a team that can surround him with Pro Bowl caliber players.
GOOD FITS: Buffalo, Atlanta, Carolina, New England, NY Giants, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, New Orleans
EARLY PICK: New Orleans has a few free agents, but Bentley is the only one who is a must re-sign. It is possible he would be franchised, but the question remains how wise that would be with a center. However, with the Saints likely to rebuild around Matt Leinart or Vince Young, protecting their investment makes the most sense. Look for the Saints to retain Bentley at any and all costs. If not, any of the above listed contenders would be a fantastic fit. Most notably, the Steelers are said to be very interested in Bentley.
3. Jon Runyan, RT, Philadelphia
At 6'7, 330, Runyan is a mammoth blocker who locks on to an end shuts him down at the point of attack. Only the fastest, most athletic ends can hope to evade Runyon, but anything less than the best, and Runyon will clamp down, and control a pass rusher. He excels in short yardage situations, where his nasty streak comes into play, and he can maul everything in front of him. A very good run blocker, he is a superb pass blocker, acting as a wall between the defender and his quarterback, forcing them far outside their rush lanes. He is seldom beaten by double moves, and for all of his size, has a sound technique. His only drawback is his age, though linemen have a greater life expectancy in the league than other players. Would be worth a 3-4 year deal from a contender.
GOOD FITS: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, New England, San Francisco
EARLY PICK: Runyon is likely to remain in Philadelphia, where they can't afford to lose him. Atlanta is in the market for elite lineman, as is San Francisco, who has holes everywhere. New England and Baltimore could use upgrades at Right Tackle, and Runyon is the best of the bunch.
4. Mike Flanagan, C, Green Bay
Flanagan is emblematic of the new breed of lineman, smaller, but able to rely on good technique with his hands and feet to excel in run block schemes. Flanagan is at his best when allowed to block back, or to set up precise blocking angles, and would fit well with a team that focuses on blocking schemes, rather than a "smash mouth" style. Flanagan is consistent, and rarely makes a mistake. However, he can be overpowered, but even then, he does not get beat so badly as to pose a threat to his quarterback. He also performs well in the shotgun formation, and shows great ability to adjust to stunts and blitzes, picking up players who beat his guards. Like Runyon, age is an issue.
GOOD FITS: Green Bay, Atlanta, New England, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Carolina
EARLY PICK: After the departure of Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle last season, and the debacle that followed, the Packers would be loathe to let another elite blocker walk this season. Expect the Packers to bring Flanagan back as they attempt to squeeze a final season out of Brett Favre. If he walks, Flanagan would excel in Atlanta where they run similar blocking schemes to the Broncos, relying on trapping and pulling. Buffalo and Carolina may lose their centers, creating holes in those lines.
5. Jeff Backus, LT, Detroit
Still only 28, this former first rounder is your typical fill in the blank kind of lineman. Nothing super special, he won't hurt you. You can stick him into the line, and forget about him. He is tough, aggressive, and intelligent, with a sound work ethic and technique. He lacks ideal size, but he will scrap and fight when he feels he is getting beat. Will never give up on a play, though he may still get beat by an elite pass rusher. He will never overpower a player, but he also will rarely get run over. Slightly above average, he should be on the shopping list for any team with severe problems on the left side.
GOOD FITS: Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco
EARLY PICK: Detroit will likely keep Backus in the Silver and Blue, but a team like Cleveland could look to Backus if LJ Shelton were to walk. The Niners are also in a major rebuilding mode, and Backus would be the perfect low cost option, someone they could plug in and leave ther for 10 years.
OTHER FREE AGENTS OF NOTE:
LJ Shelton, LT, Cleveland: Shelton is a massive left tackle, who has just never fully developed. Excellent talent, but something has always been lacking. If he could harness his ability, and learn to be more of a force inside, Shelton could be a real steal. San Fran should take a look at him, and the Lions should take a look at this Michigan native should Backus walk.
Vicor Riley, RT, Houston: Excels against smaller ends, and can get beat by more athletic players. An 8 year veteran, he has good technique and strength, and has learned how to makeup for initial mistakes. Not an elite lineman, he is a solid upgrade for many teams. May be a good fit in Arizona.
Jeff Mitchell, C, Car/Melvin Fowler, C, Minn/Justin Hartwig, C, Tennessee/Andy McCollum, C, St Louis: Along with Flanagan and Bentley, there is a bumper crop of centers this season. Most teams will likely keep their centers, but as soon as one walks, look for a game of musical chairs to take place as teams scramble to fill needs. All four of these guys would fit in well anywhere. None is a pro bowl caliber player, but all are solid, dependable veterans.
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