Leading up to the official start of free agency on March 12, packers.com will examine the league's unrestricted free agents, position by position. In the fourth installment, we look at the offensive linemen.
GREEN BAY—It's rare that a large number of proven players at one of the league premier positions – left tackle – reach free agency, but there's a significant market this year.
It nearly had one additional big name, but Kansas City put its franchise tag on Branden Albert just before Monday's deadline, effectively taking him off the market.
Whether or not Albert's absence shifts the balance from a buyer's market to a seller's one remains to be seen. Competent blindside protectors know what they're worth, and they'll demand it, whether or not others are also out there. Overall, the large number of available tackles could drive down the price of the mid-level free agents who might command more money in a different year.
Along with Albert, Denver's Ryan Clady also received the franchise tag, so the list at left tackle begins with Miami's Jake Long.
The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008, Long has spent five years with the Dolphins and has made it known he's seeking an eight-figure annual salary. Considered one of the league's top left tackles a few years ago, Long could be deemed by some an injury risk after ending each of the last two seasons on injured reserve for biceps (2011) and triceps (2012) injuries.
Next in line could be another first-round pick from '08, Atlanta's Sam Baker, who may be coming off his best season with the Falcons. Having dealt with two in-season back surgeries in his first four years, Baker said during the playoffs two months ago that he'd never felt better at the end of a season.
New Orleans' Jermon Bushrod, drafted in '07, is another starting left tackle still under age 30, while a pair of older veterans could also draw considerable interest in Pittsburgh's Max Starks and Baltimore's Bryant McKinnie. The Ravens won the Super Bowl after reshuffling their offensive line for the playoffs, with McKinnie getting reinserted at left tackle. Now heading into his 12th season, McKinnie may be able to take advantage of his rebirth and land one last significant contract.
The market at right tackle is fairly rich as well, with Cincinnati's Andre Smith coming off the first fully healthy season of his career. The No. 6 overall pick in '09, Smith was dogged by injuries for his first two years, which could make teams wary.
Two right tackles from the NFC North, Minnesota's Phil Loadholt and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus, could be leaving Green Bay's division, while New England's Sebastian Vollmer and the New York Jets' Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in '09 by the Rams, will possibly be looking for new teams as well. Kansas City also released Eric Winston this week one year after signing him to a lucrative free-agent deal.
As for the guards, the top two on the market could be Buffalo's Andy Levitre and San Diego's Louis Vasquez. Neither is a household name, but both have been rather dependable. Levitre has started every game of his four-year career, while Vasquez has started at least 14 games in three of four seasons.
The Jets have made a pair of guards available in Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson, while other notable names among the starting guards include Detroit's Stephen Peterman, Pittsburgh's Ramon Foster, Jacksonville's Eben Britton and the New York Giants' Kevin Boothe.
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