Jeff Howe will break down one position of the free-agent class each day. However, free agency won't begin until the NFL has a new collective-bargaining agreement. On Saturday, tight ends were covered.
Two players will completely shape the Patriots' offseason strategy. Left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins are free agents, and how the Pats do business with them will determine the way the team allocates the rest of its resources in free agency and the draft.
If the Patriots retain Light and Mankins — Light seems like more of a sure thing than Mankins at this point — they'll probably stay quiet in free agency, and they'll have the ability to stock up on the draft's high-caliber defensive prospects. Obviously, the opposite will be true if Light and/or Mankins find new teams.
With that, here's a look at the 2011 class of free-agent offensive linemen.
Head of the Class
1. Mankins only had to play in nine games to earn a Pro Bowl vote. He's very well-respected.
2. Tackle Willie Colon missed the 2010 season with a torn Achilles, but before the injury, he was probably the Steelers' best offensive lineman. It seems likely that he'll return to Pittsburgh, but teams' interest in Colon will be a good storyline due to his strong performance and recent injury.
3. Tackle Doug Free really emerged with the Cowboys last season. Owner Jerry Jones has already said it's a priority to improve the offensive line this offseason, and there's no way they'll be able to improve it if they lose Free. Expect the Cowboys to lock him up with a nice payday.
4. Far and away the best center on the market, Ryan Kalil will receive some heavy interest for his services. He's one of the few building blocks the Panthers have, though, so they better do what they can to hold onto him. But Kalil, a 2007 second round pick out of USC, might not be too interested in Carolina's method for rebuilding.
5. Right guard Davin Joseph might have been the Buccaneers' best offensive lineman in 2010, and they should continue to structure the line around the 27-year-old.
6. The Falcons had some pretty good offensive line play in 2010, and right guard Harvey Dahl was a leader in that regard.
7. Once an undrafted free agent, Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo made his first Pro Bowl trip in 2010.
Diamond in the Rough
Guard Alan Faneca's best days are obviously behind him, but the 34-year-old can still play and he's good for team chemistry. With a handful of really good young guards on the market, Faneca won't get a ton of money, but he'll help whichever team that signs him.
Fit for New England
The Patriots don't have to look far for this one. Mankins has been a tremendous fit for six seasons, but the contract issues are getting out of hand. Both sides are at fault — the Patriots for slacking on their negotiations, and Mankins for uncharacteristically and continuously airing his business through the media — but the bottom line is the Patriots are the ones who have to extend themselves to keep Mankins, who seems to be most loyal to the dollar. If the Patriots franchise Mankins, it doesn't necessarily mean he'll be back in New England because the franchise tag could become obsolete with the new CBA, and that's a tough obstacle to work around.
1. Saints left guard Carl Nicks is a restricted free agent, and after the aggressiveness the Saints displayed to keep right guard Jahri Evans, it would be surprising to see them let Nicks leave town.
2. The Saints are in the same position as the Patriots, as left tackle Jermaine Bushrod is also a free agent.
3. Right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan, a former Patriots draft pick, will probably earn a starting job somewhere after playing some decent football for the Chiefs during the past two seasons. He never got a chance in New England, but Kansas City might be wise to retain him.
4. Guard Richie Incognito, who is considered one of the dirtiest players in football, is a free agent, and it appears that the Dolphins will head in another direction.
5. Center Olin Kreutz, maybe the Bears' only reliable offensive lineman last season, is a free agent. He'll turn 34 in June, and he's been with the Bears since they drafted him in the third round in 1998. Since they're in position to contend again, it would be shocking if he played elsewhere next season.