As the Buffalo Bills prepare to improve their team via 2015 NFL free agency, many have speculated as to who the team might pursue. One name that comes up often is San Francisco 49ers guard Mike Iupati, who stands among the most coveted potential free agents.
The hype is understandable, mainly because there's a connection to Buffalo. Iupati’s former offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, will run Buffalo’s offense this year - and given Iupati’s age and history with the staff, he’d be an ideal target as arguably the best guard available.
But guard isn’t the only place the Bills are hurting on the offensive line, and the team’s past actions suggest the guard position isn’t a high-priority concern. Therefore, while we can expect Bills management to pursue free agents to fortify their offensive line, we shouldn't expect the team to pursue a guy who's likely looking for a contract similar to one the team passed on just a few years ago when Andy Levitre left for free agency.
Instead, expect the big money to be spent at tackle, which offers premium value and stands as arguably a bigger weakness on this team than guard. We don’t know who will be available from the crop that’s released in March, but we can safely assume the Bills will find at least one candidate soon to be released from one of 2014’s best offensive lines.
Doug Free and Jermey Parnell each played at right tackle for the Dallas Cowboys this past season as part of the offensive line that paved the way for the league’s leading rusher. They are each stout run blockers and apt pass blockers, and now both are set to become free agents in March.
The Cowboys reportedly assume that they can only keep one of these tackles. Whoever shakes loose in the aftermath will be worth a long look.
Free is the older of the two, and he’s likely to be more expensive than Parnell. While that may be cause for hesitation, remember that the Bills have more cap space in 2015 than all but seven other teams (before they re-sign their own players) as free agency looms, and more space may be on the way.
Of the teams with more cap space at present, five are Cleveland, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Oakland, and the New York Jets. The other two are Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The Bengals have Andre Smith in place at right tackle, and the Colts have Gosder Cherilus at a hefty price - plus Andrew Luck’s contract situation looming over whatever space they have this season.
If Free wants to get paid and play for a team that sits in the playoff hunt, Buffalo could be his best choice. The Bills could make a strong, front-loaded offer to the veteran, who is looking at one more big pay day at age 31.
The question from there would be whether such a contract is worth pursuing on Buffalo’s end.
Free offers steady play that has always been at its best when he remains on the right side, which is perfect for Buffalo. More importantly to such a ragged unit as Buffalo's right now is what Free offers off the field. His experience and leadership would be a great asset to an offensive line unit that needs it now more than ever.
Cordy Glenn and Eric Wood have established themselves as 16-game starters in this league, but beyond them, this unit is a wasteland, even with guard Richie Incognito in the fold. If you have an established stud like Free on the right, you only have two holes in the line with plenty of candidates to compete for those positions.
Of course, you could achieve a lot of that with Parnell, who is three years younger than Free and likely to be cheaper given his smaller body of work. If the underlying stats of 2014 are any indication, there wouldn't be much of a drop-off, if any, from Free to Parnell. As Blogging the Boys notes: "According to Pro Football Focus, the two graded out almost identically at +8.5 for Free and +8.7 for Parnell."
Now, PFF grades aren’t the be-all and end-all when you look at offensive linemen, but they're a necessary complement when you're talking about valuing a guy like Free because of intangible factors.
The results say that the two performed similarly in the same position, and that while Free had a sterling, injury-free record prior to this season, he dealt with several injuries in 2014, which could be disconcerting when contrasted with Parnell.
While Parnell doesn’t have the body of work at right tackle that Free has, he could be the better choice for Buffalo, because he is cheaper and offers solid play without becoming a potential burden to the team’s salary cap situation in years to come.
Buffalo has experimented with young talent being cross-trained at guard before. With that in mind, the team could decide to put their free agency money into the tackle positions and let the young guys battle with Incognito for snaps at the two guard spots.
Whoever shakes loose from the Cowboys won’t be a free agent for long. We know that Doug Whaley wants to fortify the offensive line, and he doesn’t have the luxury of a first-round pick to do so. If history is any indication, he's likely looking for tackle help first, which should keep his eye on the headlines in Dallas.