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Deep crop of free agent offensive linemen could appeal to Tampa Bay Buccaneers

TAMPA — If the Bucs have done nothing else during the past few offseasons, they've devoted effort and resources toward fortifying their offensive line.

It continues to be a stated goal of the organization to position quarterback Josh Freeman to succeed, and there are few better ways to do so than to protect him with the best offensive line money can buy.

To that end, the Bucs have invested in long-term deals for left tackle Donald Penn, right guard Davin Joseph and left guard Jeremy Zuttah in the past two years.

Will that continue in free agency? It's not as likely to be an area of emphasis as other units, but there is a deep crop of free agent line talent.

Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood is entering the final season of a two-year deal and center Jeff Faine is 30 and has a salary cap number approaching $8 million. So, everything is presumably on the table.

A look at the top free agent offensive linemen:

Carl Nicks, Saints (guard)

As good as quarterback Drew Brees is, this guy factors in that success. But the Saints locked up their other guard, Jahri Evans, with a $56 million deal last year, and just placed the franchise tag on Brees, so there's potentially not enough left to give Nicks what he'll want — reportedly a megadeal of $8 million plus annually. As to the Bucs, one challenge here is the franchise's history of paying smallish signing bonuses. Many of the biggest contracts written by the team in recent years (Joseph, Penn, Zuttah, Kellen Winslow, Quincy Black) have featured small signing bonuses and larger, often guaranteed, annual salaries. That won't be competitive against teams dangling up-front cash.

Price tag: $$$$

Jared Gaither, Chargers (tackle)

Thirty-one other teams will take notice if Gaither hits the market, so rare is the occasion when a top-tier left tackle makes it to free agency. Top tackles are almost always drafted, not acquired in free agency, but Gaither's career has been interrupted by contract disagreements and injuries. San Diego acquired him last year and is making a late push to re-sign him after a solid 2011. The Bucs aren't in the market for a left tackle, given the investment in Penn, but Gaither is a talent.

Price tag: $$$

Ben Grubbs, Ravens (guard)

He has had a big hand in the success of running back Ray Rice, who the Ravens made their franchise player last week. That won't improve the odds of Grubbs sticking around, and he's sure to draw widespread interest if he makes it to the open market. The Ravens have significant money tied up in their offensive line, especially after extending their other guard, Marshal Yanda, with a $32 million deal last year.

Price tag: $$$

Chris Myers, Texans (center)

It was no accident that the Texans were second in the NFL in rushing in 2011. Yes, they had a superb running back tandem in Arian Foster and Ben Tate, but they also have a top-flight offensive line. That unit, for the past four seasons, has been anchored by the team's Pro Bowl center. Myers has started 80 straight games in Denver and Houston. He's 30, but he doesn't miss games. There's still a chance he strikes a last-minute deal with the Texans, so stay tuned.

Price tag: $$$

Scott Wells, Packers (center)

Wells is credited with helping Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers develop, and he was rewarded with his first Pro Bowl appearance this season. So, his timing is superb; he's coming into free agency when he is playing some of his best football. The Packers would like to strike a deal to bring him back, but it looks like he'll hit the open market. Rodgers won't want to see Wells get away but the Packers, so far, seem unwilling to meet his contract demands.

Price tag: $$$

. fast facts

The series

Friday: Running backs

Today: Offensive line

Sunday: Wide receivers

Monday: Linebackers

Tuesday: Defensive backs

. fast facts

Key

$$$$: More than $8 million per year or more

$$$: $5 million-$8 million per year

$$: $2 million-$5 million per year

$: Less than $2 million per year

Deep crop of free agent offensive linemen could appeal to Tampa Bay Buccaneers 03/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 4:42pm]
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