OK, so Eagles nine-year veteran Jermane Mayberry was a first-round choice, the 25th prospect selected overall in the 1996 lottery. But that lofty status includes a caveat of sorts, since the Eagles brain trust actually chose Mayberry to play tackle, and he didn't migrate to an inside offensive line perch until his fourth NFL season.
And the first-round pedigree of Mayberry is also overshadowed by the fact the other three Super Bowl guards -- Eagles teammate Artis Hicks and Joe Andruzzi and Stephen Neal of the Patriots -- all came into the league as undrafted free agents. Neal, in fact, never even played football at the college level, concentrating instead on wrestling, an avid pursuit that earned him a pair of NCAA championships at Cal State-Bakersfield. Andruzzi was so dubiously regarded early in his career that Green Bay, his initial team, sent him to Europe for seasoning. Until this year, Hicks' big claim to fame was a cameo appearance in one of those soup commercials starring quarterback Donovan McNabb and his mom.
Truth be told, the dearth of celebrity for the four Super Bowl starters at guard is pretty much reflective of the modest regard in which the position is held leaguewide. Offensive tackles land the big money and, for the most part, guards get the table scraps. The feeling of many franchises, justifiable or not, is that guards are the unskilled laborers of the line quintet, low-round draft choices and afterthoughts you plug into the lineup and hope play well enough to avoid embarrassment.
Such lack of recognition and respect for the most anonymous of offensive line warriors, though, may be about to change, at least a little, in coming months.
When the free agent signing period commences on March 2, there figure to be positions, most notably tailback, of great depth. But no position might offer as much comparative value as guard, a spot that could feature productive veterans available at all levels of the financial spectrum. Mayberry and Andruzzi are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and Neal will be restricted. Having invested a first-round selection last April on Shawn Andrews -- the eventual replacement for right tackle Jon Runyan, but the Eagles' starter at right guard in the 2004 opener, until he sustained a season-ending knee injury -- Philadelphia might not be inclined to overspend in an effort to retain Mayberry.
But that doesn't mean the Eagles veteran, who could likely start at tackle for a few teams in the league, won't find a competitive market for his services. The contract numbers at the guard position won't go through the roof, and none of the pending free agents figures to approximate the eight-figure largesse that Damien Woody experienced last spring as the former Patriots star bolted to the Detroit Lions, but the pay scale definitely is on the rise at the position.
And, make no mistake, the approaching free agency period will fuel what continues to be an upward salary spiral for guards.
"We're never going to catch up (to tackles) money-wise," said Seattle starter Chris Gray, one of several excellent guards set to become free agents in about five weeks, "but there is a sense now that the position is getting more attention. There are so many outstanding (defensive) tackles in the league now, teams are realizing you can't just stick anybody in there at guard, and hope to succeed. I think we're seeing an upgrade, in terms of ability at the position, and maybe in terms of importance as well. I don't think you can just rely on finding a couple of 'grunts' and sticking them at guard anymore."
Certainly the Green Bay Packers don't consider their guard tandem, Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, a pair of stiffs. With apologies to Brian Waters and Will Shields in Kansas City, the two might be the premier duet in the league. But one of the reasons for panic in Green Bay this offseason, as veteran line coach Larry Beightol will readily attest, is that both starters could be gone in 2005 and extremely difficult to replace. Rivera is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Wahle is due a whopping $6 million roster bonus in March and, unless his contract is reworked to provide Green Bay a more palatable salary cap charge, he will be jettisoned.
The presence of Wahle in the market would bolster a guard pool that will merit more than just the usual fleeting attention.
As Gray noted, the increasing number of active defensive tackles in the NFL, guys who aren't just classic run-stuffers but who can get into the gaps and collapse the pocket from the inside, means teams have been forced to upgrade at guard. In a survey of coaches and general managers last month for the ESPN.com All-Pro teams, seven different guards were cited. It appears there are more good young guards in the league now than at any time in the past two decades.
While the scramble to land guards in free agency won't be quite the equivalent of what transpires at Filene's Basement when the famed Boston department store stages its annual sale of wedding dresses, the market will be a lively one. Top-notch guards should realize, most agents and personnel directors concur, a notable bump in the wage scale.
In addition to Mayberry and Rivera, the unrestricted free agents will include at least four top-flight guards -- Rick DeMulling (Indianapolis), Keydrick Vincent (Pittsburgh), David Dixon (Minnesota) and Roberto Garza (Atlanta) -- from playoff franchises. Some scouts felt that, when healthy, DeMulling played at a Pro Bowl level in 2004. But the Colts also count starting right tackle Ryan Diem among their free agents and retaining him figures to be a bigger priority than keeping DeMulling around, especially since Indianapolis has two young guards who logged considerable playing time this season.
Vincent is an interesting case in that he started all 16 games for the Steelers, the only club in the NFL to have all five starters line up every week, after Kendall Simmons was lost to a season-ending knee injury in camp. But Simmons, a former first-round pick, will return in 2005 and Pittsburgh officials already have strongly hinted to Vincent that they will not be able to afford to re-sign him.
Vincent acknowledged earlier this week he will have a new address in 2005. At age 26, with 27 starts over the past two seasons and the ability to play some at tackle in a pinch, he will have a fatter paycheck, too. The four-year veteran won't break the bank, but he won't have to wait long for suitors to begin calling on March 2, either.
In the NFL offensive line caste system, guards remain on the bottom rung, but the ladder isn't nearly as acutely tilted as it was only a few years ago.
The performances of players such as Waters, Alan Faneca of Pittsburgh, and Seattle's Steve Hutchinson have begun to raise the profile of the position. The coming free agency period will continue to raise the compensation level.
Around the league
• The events of the last couple weeks in the NFL coaching carousel don't quite constitute a trend, at least not yet, but you can bet that a lot of assistants have paid close attention to the big-money deals landed by their peers who opted to become free agents. In the past, there has been no more coveted commodity among assistants than job security. Coaches in the final season of their contracts historically jumped at the opportunities to extend their deals, to buy themselves another two or three seasons worth of paychecks, when the owners offered them the opportunity. But in the past few weeks, some very high-profile assistant coaches -- offensive coordinators Scott Linehan, Mike Heimerdinger and Mike McCarthy, and offensive line coach Hudson Houck, among others -- basically allowed their contracts to expire, went on the open market, and commanded huge raises. The much coveted Linehan went from a salary of $300,000 annually in Minnesota to a deal with the Miami Dolphins that is worth $850,000 per year. By moving from Tennessee to the New York Jets, Heimerdinger saw his salary more than double, from $400,000 to about $1.05 million. Houck got a three-year, $2.55 million deal in going from the San Diego Chargers, where he might have earned $500,000, to the Dolphins, where new head coach Nick Saban is spending freely to assemble a top-flight staff. And it's likely that McCarthy doubled his income by departing New Orleans for San Francisco. Of course, the common denominator among these four coaches is that all were coveted by other teams, by franchises that were willing to pay top dollar, as the assistant coach salaries around the NFL continue to escalate. Not every assistant is in such demand, has the kind of market and leverage of this quartet, for sure. Most assistants would be both wise and prudent to avoid the temptation of assuming that coaching free agency will always equate into the kinds of contracts this group commanded. "You don't want a crap-shoot situation, that's for sure," said one veteran assistant coach. "You play hard-ball, your (current) team calls your bluff, and you could be out in the cold." But there are all kinds of ways in the NFL, even with the league's strict anti-tampering rules, to use back-channel methods and gauge interest from other clubs while still under contract. The assistants who understand that, and know that they will be in demand if they permit their contracts to lapse, will do so in increasing numbers, especially after having seen the payoffs that awaited this year's group of coaching free agents.
• Speaking of coaching free agents, it is believed the contract of New England secondary coach Eric Mangini, whose stature league-wide was only enhanced by the performance of his undermanned unit this year, expires after the Super Bowl. If that is the case, Mangini could face a difficult decision. The 10-year NFL veteran is probably scheduled as the heir to the Pats defensive coordinator post once incumbent Romeo Crennel departs to become the Cleveland Browns head coach. But he might also be pursued by Saban who, while assembling a terrific offense staff, is having problems filling the defensive coordinator post. Given the contracts that Saban has awarded his assistants so far, the money likely would be greater for Mangini with the Dolphins. The Patriots, who engender admirable loyalty in their assistants, do not have one of the league's higher-paid staffs and there seems to be a choking point beyond which owner Bob Kraft and coach Bill Belichick won't go for an assistant. Neither Crennel nor offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, for example, are in the burgeoning million-dollar club for assistant coaches, and might never have joined that fraternity had they remained in New England.
• Coaching carousel: There are indications that Southern California offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who has eschewed past opportunities in the NFL, could be a candidate to replace Mike Heimerdinger in Tennessee. The much-admired Chow has hinted to friends on the West Coast that he has again been approached by an NFL team, believed to be the Titans, and that he might seriously consider their proposal. ... San Diego has hired veteran offensive line coach Carl Mauck to replace the departed Hudson Houck, with an official announcement expected on Friday. Mauck did not coach in the league in 2004 but made headlines last week when, while serving as an assistant in a college all-star game in Las Vegas, he sprinted across the field and threw a punch at an opposing coach. Seems the excitable Mauck was upset that the coach called a blitz in a game in which the rules did not allow the maneuver. ... Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Alex Van Pelt, forced into retirement by a neck injury suffered in 2003, is getting some consideration from a few teams as he attempts to launch his coaching career. Van Pelt, who spent the 2004 season as an analyst on the Bills radio network, met with team officials from Miami, Tampa Bay and San Francisco this week. He just wants an entry-level position, possibly as a quality control coach, but might do even better than that. There are whispers that Mike McCarthy, the new offensive coordinator in San Francisco, could hire Van Pelt as quarterbacks coach. ... Sources say that neither Terry Robiskie (most recently the interim head coach for the Cleveland Browns) nor Dallas offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, both often mentioned as coordinator candidates in Cleveland, are locks to be on the Romeo Crennel staff there. ... One reason behind the Dallas Cowboys' hiring of Paul Pasqualoni earlier this week is that the former Syracuse head coach has some background in the 3-4 defense. As noted here in the past, Dallas coach Bill Parcells wants to incorporate more 3-4 fronts into the Cowboys defensive play book in 2005. ... Jim Bates, the new defensive coordinator in Green Bay, is likely to hire a pair of his former assistants in Miami, Bob Sanders and Robert Nunn, as assistants. Nunn, a former quality control coach under Bates, probably would coach the defensive line. Sanders coached the linebackers under Bates in Miami, but would move to another position in Green Bay. The Packers are expected to promote assistant secondary coach Lionel Washington to the No. 1 assistant spot in the defensive backfield, to replace the departed Bob Slowik, who moved on to the Denver Broncos. The Packers on Friday promoted offensive assistant Edgar Bennett to the post of running backs coach, replacing longtime assistant Johnny Roland, who has accepted a spot on the New Orleans staff. ... San Diego tight ends coach Tim Brewster will move to Denver in the same capacity.
• Despite his tearful address to teammates on Monday morning, the day after the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss to New England in the AFC championship game, tailback Jerome Bettis actually is leaning toward returning. That assumes he and team officials can agree to a viable reworking of his contract, one that addresses the needs of both parties, and that "The Bus" is convinced he will continue to have a meaningful role with the team. Bettis, who turns 33 next month, is due a base salary of $4.484 million in 2005. The 12-year veteran took a substantial salary reduction this season, after the Steelers acquired Duce Staley to be the starter, but certainly looked like he located a fountain of youth when he regained the top spot on the depth chart. Given his rebirth, it isn't certain if Bettis would be again willing to accept the short-yardage and goal-line role he filled early in the 2004 season. At wide receiver, it remains a long shot, but do not discount the possibility that Pittsburgh will use the "franchise" designation to retain the rights to pending unrestricted free agent Plaxico Burress. The team has already promised to extend the upgrade the contract of Pro Bowl wideout Hines Ward and, if it follows through on that, it will be difficult to keep Burress around. There are Steelers officials, though, who favor using the "franchise" marker on Burress, even though it would be out of character for the club.
• The remarks this week by Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe, that he would consider trading disgruntled tailback Travis Henry to Miami, all but assures a deal will happen if someone meets the asking price. It's unusual to deal a solid player such as Henry within the division, but the Bills want to avoid the mess that would ensue if they keep the two-time 1,000-yard rusher as a backup to Willis McGahee, and Donahoe wants another high-round draft choice. The Bills do not have a first-round pick in the 2005 draft, having dealt it to Dallas last spring, to enable Buffalo to grab quarterback J.P. Losman. But if Donahoe can squeeze a second-rounder out of some team desperate to overpay for Henry, he might be able to parlay the resultant pair of No. 2 picks into the first-round selection.
• Washington Redskins officials are determined to improve the team's offensive line play in 2005 and are looking to upgrade at the center spot. But the Redskins might also need a new left tackle in another month or so. ESPN.com has confirmed that Jimmy Sexton, the agent for tackle Chris Samuels, huddled with Washington owner Dan Snyder this week to discuss the burdensome contract of the five-year veteran and former first-round draft pick. The Redskins would prefer that Samuels sign an extension, as fellow 2000 first-rounder LaVar Arrington did toward the end of the 2003 season, to lower his salary cap charge. Samuels has demonstrated in the past that he is willing to aid the Redskins' salary cap plight but might not be as inclined to rework his deal for a third time. If he doesn't, though, he could be released. Both sides will have to think long and hard about the ramifications of such a move. Washington would have to find a left tackle -- no small feat, even with Walter Jones of Seattle rumored to be headed to free agency, after three seasons playing under the "franchise" tag -- and that would be an expensive proposition. For his part, Samuels, who played better in 2004 after a couple of subpar and injury-marred campaigns, has to be certain there is a market for him if he forces Snyder's hand.
• Although he has been the primary catalyst for the team's marked improvement against the run since being inserted into the starting lineup, Philadelphia Eagles officials have made no attempt to sign middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter to a contract extension. In fact, the Eagles brass hasn't even suggested to Trotter, who earned a spot on the Pro Bowl squad despite starting in just nine games, that it wants him to return in 2005. Trotter essentially begged the Eagles to sign him this summer, following his release by the Redskins, and gladly accepted a $535,000 salary, the NFL minimum for a player of his tenure. But there is no way, given the manner in which the prideful Trotter resurrected his career this season, that he will play for anything resembling the minimum in 2005. So where might Trotter land if he goes on the open market? Granted, teams have ceased paying big contracts to two-down, run-stuffing middle linebackers. But Trotter displayed in some third-down situations this year that he has some value as a blitzer. And there will be a few clubs -- Indianapolis, Seattle, the New York Giants, among them -- looking to perhaps make a change at middle linebacker. Trotter won't command a $7 million signing bonus, as he did when he left the Eagles for the Redskins in 2002, but he has definitely made himself some money over the past two months. On the defensive line, the Eagles have reiterated they would like to re-sign end Derrick Burgess, who has had terrific back-to-back Super Bowl performances. There has been no progress on an extension for Corey Simon and sources said Eagles officials will exercise the "franchise" designation, if necessary, to keep him.
• Credit New York Jets officials for not pushing the panic button after acknowledging this week that star quarterback Chad Pennington will require arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. For sure, that is dicey stuff, even if Pennington encounters zero complications in his rehabilitation. Just as scary: Pennington has never had a bazooka dangling from his right shoulder. But the Jets, given the number of quarterbacks who annually find themselves out of work in the spring, have ample time to monitor Pennington's recovery, and still sign a proven veteran if need be. New York currently has just two quarterbacks, Brooks Bollinger and Ricky Ray, under contract. Quincy Carter, who signed just a one-year contract when he joined the Jets, will be a free agent and is seeking a chance to start somewhere. But if the history of the past three or four springs holds to form, New York won't have any problem finding a veteran if Pennington's recovery is stalled.
• It appears the Seattle Seahawks won't begin interviewing candidates for their top front office job until after the Super Bowl. The lack of urgency on the part of owner Paul Allen is somewhat puzzling, given that Seattle has so many starters eligible for free agency. In San Francisco, the resumes of the candidates interviewed so far for the 49ers' general manager position seems to bolster the notion that new head coach Mike Nolan will have plenty of input into personnel decisions. One league observer termed the San Francisco candidates "lightweights," a sentiment shared by many. That seems a bit harsh. It is obvious, though, that owner John York is seeking a lower-profile guy who will fit into the team's new power structure.
• Former league defensive lineman Alonzo Spellman, who hasn't played since 2001 and spent the last three seasons battling bipolar disorder, hopes to make a comeback at age 33. The former first-rounder has spoken to NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw about a possible return. Unfortunately, general managers aren't exactly rushing to return his phone calls or letters yet.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.