2010 free-agent preview: Offensive linemen

This is the fourth in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who may be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens on March 5:

This Charger won’t bolt

LaDainian Tomlinson won’t be back in San Diego, and there’s a chance younger Chargers such as Darren Sproles and Antonio Cromartie will join him in cost-cutting moves.

Chargers unlikely to let left tackle Marcus McNeill hit the market.
Chargers unlikely to let left tackle Marcus McNeill hit the market.

One key Charger that figures to be around for a long time, however, is left tackle Marcus McNeill, Philip Rivers’ most valuable protector. Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo knows just how talented McNeill is, having faced him in practice for years.

"His combination of size and speed is extremely rare in this league — even among the best at his position," Castillo said. "He can handle the outside speed along with the power counters most great rushers use to get guys off-balance."

Saints’ trade bait?

As is the case with every Super Bowl champion, there are some tough personnel decisions to be made. New Orleans has a good "problem" to solve at left tackle.

Jammal Brown (a two-time Pro Bowler who missed last season after hip and sports hernia surgeries) and Jermon Bushrod (who filled in admirably as Drew Brees’ blind-side protector) are set to become restricted free agents.

Brown’s credentials will translate to a much bigger contract, so the Saints need to decide whether it’s better to invest their money elsewhere. Even though Brown is coming off significant injuries, some good offers are bound to come in for him.

Not to be left out

Along with New Orleans, Green Bay and Arizona were two of the NFC’s most prolific passing teams last season. Both teams have underrated left tackles of their own who will be on the market.

Part of the reason the Packers allowed a league-high 51 sacks was Chad Clifton¹s health issues. He was banged up and had to play through injuries most of the season. Clifton, 33, missed four games, including the pair against Minnesota in which the Vikings racked up 14 sacks.

"When Chad doesn’t play and Jared Allen has a big day working on his backup, that says a lot," Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "They missed him."

Ogunleye also is familiar with Cardinals left tackle Mike Gandy, his former Bears teammate in 2004. Over the past two seasons, Gandy, 31, a former guard, did a solid job of helping keep Kurt Warner upright.

Gandy is also coming off injury troubles in 2009 and can be had at a bargain price. He doesn’t have the most impressive skills, but his experience is a big plus.

"At first it looks like you can get by him, but then he does a good job of getting in front of you," Ogunleye said. "He holds his own pretty well."

Feeling guarded

The market for interior linemen isn’t as good. The best right guard is the Falcons’ Harvey Dahl, a tough run and pass blocker who has a nasty streak. But Atlanta won’t let him go, especially since he will be a restricted free agent.

Patriots left guard Logan Mankins — a durable, dependable two-time Pro Bowler — is in the same situation. The question is whether the team re-signs him to a long-term deal.

Mankins’ teammate, right guard Stephen Neal, is unrestricted, but he hasn’t played a full season since 2005. At 33, Neal likely will end up back in New England if he doesn’t opt to retire.

A sleeper at the position is the Browns’ Rex Hadnot, who played well down the stretch. "He’s got good experience playing all across the line at guard and center," an NFC team scout said.

Hadnot isn’t a big name, but at 28, he might be the best available option inside.

The top 10

1. Marcus McNeill, T, Chargers*
2. Jammal Brown, T, Saints*
3. Jared Gaither, T, Ravens (RFA)
4. Harvey Dahl, G, Falcons*
5. Logan Mankins, G, Patriots*
6. Tyson Clabo, T, Falcons*
7. Chad Clifton, T, Packers (UFA)
8. Charlie Johnson, T, Colts*
9. Mike Gandy, T, Cardinals (UFA)
10. Rex Hadnot, G, Browns (UFA)

UFA=will be an unrestricted free agent
RFA=restricted free agent
*=will be restricted without new CBA

… And one more to watch

Kevin Mawae, C, Titans: Mawae, 39, is coming off his eighth Pro Bowl season and remains a strong, durable center at 6-4, 289. He’s a good leader and run blocker, and Tennessee is allowing him to test the market. He wants to start, and he should get that opportunity from a young team that needs a savvy interior lineman.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

This is the fourth in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who may be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens on March 5:

This Charger won’t bolt

LaDainian Tomlinson won’t be back in San Diego, and there’s a chance younger Chargers such as Darren Sproles and Antonio Cromartie will join him in cost-cutting moves.

Chargers unlikely to let left tackle Marcus McNeill hit the market.
Chargers unlikely to let left tackle Marcus McNeill hit the market.

One key Charger that figures to be around for a long time, however, is left tackle Marcus McNeill, Philip Rivers’ most valuable protector. Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo knows just how talented McNeill is, having faced him in practice for years.

"His combination of size and speed is extremely rare in this league — even among the best at his position," Castillo said. "He can handle the outside speed along with the power counters most great rushers use to get guys off-balance."

Saints’ trade bait?

As is the case with every Super Bowl champion, there are some tough personnel decisions to be made. New Orleans has a good "problem" to solve at left tackle.

Jammal Brown (a two-time Pro Bowler who missed last season after hip and sports hernia surgeries) and Jermon Bushrod (who filled in admirably as Drew Brees’ blind-side protector) are set to become restricted free agents.

Brown’s credentials will translate to a much bigger contract, so the Saints need to decide whether it’s better to invest their money elsewhere. Even though Brown is coming off significant injuries, some good offers are bound to come in for him.

Not to be left out

Along with New Orleans, Green Bay and Arizona were two of the NFC’s most prolific passing teams last season. Both teams have underrated left tackles of their own who will be on the market.

Part of the reason the Packers allowed a league-high 51 sacks was Chad Clifton¹s health issues. He was banged up and had to play through injuries most of the season. Clifton, 33, missed four games, including the pair against Minnesota in which the Vikings racked up 14 sacks.

"When Chad doesn’t play and Jared Allen has a big day working on his backup, that says a lot," Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "They missed him."

Ogunleye also is familiar with Cardinals left tackle Mike Gandy, his former Bears teammate in 2004. Over the past two seasons, Gandy, 31, a former guard, did a solid job of helping keep Kurt Warner upright.

Gandy is also coming off injury troubles in 2009 and can be had at a bargain price. He doesn’t have the most impressive skills, but his experience is a big plus.

"At first it looks like you can get by him, but then he does a good job of getting in front of you," Ogunleye said. "He holds his own pretty well."

Feeling guarded

The market for interior linemen isn’t as good. The best right guard is the Falcons’ Harvey Dahl, a tough run and pass blocker who has a nasty streak. But Atlanta won’t let him go, especially since he will be a restricted free agent.

Patriots left guard Logan Mankins — a durable, dependable two-time Pro Bowler — is in the same situation. The question is whether the team re-signs him to a long-term deal.

Mankins’ teammate, right guard Stephen Neal, is unrestricted, but he hasn’t played a full season since 2005. At 33, Neal likely will end up back in New England if he doesn’t opt to retire.

A sleeper at the position is the Browns’ Rex Hadnot, who played well down the stretch. "He’s got good experience playing all across the line at guard and center," an NFC team scout said.

Hadnot isn’t a big name, but at 28, he might be the best available option inside.

The top 10

1. Marcus McNeill, T, Chargers*
2. Jammal Brown, T, Saints*
3. Jared Gaither, T, Ravens (RFA)
4. Harvey Dahl, G, Falcons*
5. Logan Mankins, G, Patriots*
6. Tyson Clabo, T, Falcons*
7. Chad Clifton, T, Packers (UFA)
8. Charlie Johnson, T, Colts*
9. Mike Gandy, T, Cardinals (UFA)
10. Rex Hadnot, G, Browns (UFA)

UFA=will be an unrestricted free agent
RFA=restricted free agent
*=will be restricted without new CBA

… And one more to watch

Kevin Mawae, C, Titans: Mawae, 39, is coming off his eighth Pro Bowl season and remains a strong, durable center at 6-4, 289. He’s a good leader and run blocker, and Tennessee is allowing him to test the market. He wants to start, and he should get that opportunity from a young team that needs a savvy interior lineman.

Vinnie Iyer is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

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