Monday, March 10, 2014
Free-agent wish list: Offensive line
By Mike Triplett
Two of the New Orleans Saints' starting offensive linemen will become unrestricted free agents on Tuesday -- right tackle Zach Strief and center Brian De la Puente. It's still possible the Saints could re-sign one or both of them. But they're content to see how the market shapes up before making any decisions.
If Strief and De la Puente leave, the Saints have young backups who could compete for their roles with third-year right tackle Bryce Harris and second-year guard/center Tim Lelito. They could also add potential starters at either spot in the draft. But they would probably want to add some veteran options in free agency as insurance.
The most obvious candidate for that type of role would be former Saints center Jonathan Goodwin, who is now a free agent again after three years as a starter for the San Francisco 49ers. Goodwin, 35, would be a natural stopgap while the Saints develop a young future replacement.
There aren't many top-notch centers available in their primes right now. Most analysts rank either De la Puente or the Green Bay Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith as the top available options. Maybe Dietrich-Smith is slightly better, but the Saints would probably prefer to keep the guy they know at that price range.
Among the cheaper options at center would be the Atlanta Falcons' Joe Hawley, who was decent when he stepped into a starting role last year.
There are many more options available at right tackle, where the Saints could attempt to upgrade or at least get younger if they want to move on from Strief. The Cincinnati Bengals' Anthony Collins (28) and the New York Jets' Austin Howard (27 later this month) both had their best seasons to date in 2014 after beginning their careers as backups. Seattle Seahawks starter Breno Giacomini is another strong option in that same range.
The Baltimore Ravens' Michael Oher, 28, is a big name and a big, powerful run-blocker. But he has been inconsistent as a pass-protector throughout his career.
Older options who might be considered on short-term deals include the Arizona Cardinals' Eric Winston and the Tennessee Titans' David Stewart.
ESPN NFL Insiders Matt Williamson and Adam Caplan both said they didn't see many options the Saints should aggressively pursue -- though they did both mention Giacomini.
"With the offensive line, I keep coming back to their guys already," Williamson said of Strief and de la Puente. "Anthony Collins, to me, is about the same player as Strief but can also play left tackle. Giacomini is a mauler, you can run behind him on early downs. Austin Howard came out of nowhere and has exceeded expectations. His arrow is up, but he probably won't ever be 'great.' "