2018 NFL free agency: NFL teams will be bidding on small crop of offensive linemen

You might not have Valentine's Day circled on your calendar, but you should this year, because February 14 means we'll be exactly one month away from the start of NFL free agency. 

At 4 p.m. ET on March 14, the free agent floodgates will open and teams will be able to sign any unrestricted free agent. Although you'll probably hear a lot about this year's quarterback class over the next month (Kirk Cousins and Drews Brees to name two guys) and you'll probably also even hear a lot about the loaded running back class (Le'Veon Bell and Dion Lewis to name a few), one group of players you probably won't hear too much is the offensive linemen. 

Although signing a great lineman can be the fastest way to building a solid foundation for your team, the truth is, great lineman are kind of like great quarterbacks, in the sense that they rarely become unrestricted free agents. 

Of course, that doesn't mean you can't find an All-Pro offensive lineman in free agency. As a matter of fact, one of the best guards in the NFL is going to be available on March 14 when the clock strikes 4 p.m. ET. 

So who is that player and who else is available? 

Lets take a look at the best free agent offensive linemen heading into the offseason. 

Tackles (Listed by Pro Football Focus Ranking)

17. Ja'Wuan James, RT (Dolphins

24. Cameron Fleming, RT (Patriots

32. Nate Solder, LT (Patriots) 

40. Chris Hubbard, RT (Steelers)

48. Sam Young, RT (Dolphins)

52. Justin Pugh, RT (Giants)

61. Michael Schofield, RT, (Chargers)

Synopsis: Although James is listed at the top of PFF's rankings, the player to keep an eye on here is Solder and that's because he'll be the best left tackle available when free agency starts. As the top left tackle, there's a good chance Solder is going to be able to command top dollar and if we've learned one thing about Bill Belichick during his time with the Patriots, it's that he generally doesn't like to pay top dollar for anyone. 

The other thing to keep in mind here is that the Patriots actually have two offensive tackles who will be free agents. With Cameron Fleming also free to sign with anyone in March, it's almost a guarantee that the Patriots will only make a play for just one of their guys. Fleming is only 25 -- Solder turns 30 in April -- and Belichick loves to use his younger guy as a swing tackle, so it wouldn't be surprising at all to see the Patriots make a play for Fleming. 

As for James, the Dolphins right tackle might have graded the highest of any free agent, but he comes with a big injury question mark. The 2014 first-round pick missed the final eight games of the 2017 season after going on injured reserve in November with a hamstring injury. When he's healthy, he generally plays well, but there's no guarantee James can stay healthy. Over the past three season, the right tackle has missed 17 out of a possible 48 regular season games for the Dolphins. 

Others: Andre Smith, RT (Bengals), Greg Robinson, LT (Lions), Austin Pasztor, RT (Falcons), Gary Gilliam, RT (49ers), Chris Clark, LT (Texans), Cornelius Lucas, RT (Rams), Will Beatty, LT (Eagles)

Guards (Listed by Pro Football Focus Ranking)

3. Andrew Norwell, LG (Panthers

21. Brandon Fusco, RG (49ers)

22. Josh Kline, RG (Titans

23. Joe Berger, RG (Vikings)

29. Evan Smith, RG (Buccaneers)

30. Jahri Evans, RG (Packers)

35. Jonathan Cooper, LG (Cowboys)

42. Senio Kelemete, LG (Saints)

47. Tom Compton, T/G (Bears)

49. Matt Slauson, LG (Chargers)

51. Luke Joeckel, LG (Seahawks)

Synopsis: It's not often that an offensive lineman hits free agency after being named first-team All-Pro, but that's exactly what's going to be happening with Andrew Norwell this year. The Panthers offensive lineman, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014, has progressively gotten better each year that he's played in the NFL. Norwell has started in all 32 games the Panthers have played in over the past two seasons, and he also served as a key member for a high-powered Carolina offense that made it all the way to Super Bowl 50 in 2015.

If you're wondering why the Panthers wouldn't just keep Norwell, it's because they already have a boatload of money locked up in their offensive line, with guys  like guard Trai Turner (four-year, $45 million) and left tackle Matt Kalil (five-year, $55.5 million) signed to big contracts. 

The Panthers will definitely make him an offer, but it's unlikely they'll be able to match any deal that comes from a franchise that's sitting on a fortune of salary cap space. CBSSports.com's Joel Correy, a former agent, believes Norwell will become the highest paid guard in NFL history. 

That's probably out of the Panthers' budget. Also, Carolina won't be able to afford to hit Norwell with a franchise tag because it would likely eat up too much of their cap room heading into free agency. 

The guards to keep an eye in this class are the six guys listed after Norwell. All six of those guys would be an immediate starter on almost any team they might sign with. One surprise guy on the list is Jonathan Cooper. You might remember him as the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. After fizzling out in Arizona (2013-15) and Cleveland (2016), Cooper signed a one-year prove-it contract with the Cowboys in 2017 and had a solid year, starting 13 games for Dallas. He could be an inexpensive upgrade for a team looking to add a guard. 

Any team looking for a durable starter should be looking at Brandon Fusco. Although he's not as good as Norwell, he can be successful in the right offense, not to mention, he's been able to stay incredibly healthy over the past few years. Since 2015, Fusco has played in 46 of a possible 48 games. 

Others: D.J. Fluker, RG (Giants), Jermon Bushrod, RG (Dolphins), Alex Boone, LG (Cardinals), Allen Barbre G/T (Broncos), Jack Mewhort (Colts), Shawn Lauvao (Redskins), Jack Mewhort (Colts), Kenny Wiggins, RG (Chargers), Xavier Su'a-Filo, LG (Texans)

Center (Listed by Pro Football Focus Ranking)

9. Ryan Jensen (Ravens)

10. John Sullivan (Rams)

19. Spencer Long (Redskins)

23. Daniel Kilgore (49ers)

25. Russell Bodine (Bengals)

32. Travis Swanson (Lions)

35. Wesley Johnson (Jets)

*Weston Richburg (Giants)

Synopsis: With the center class, there's basically Jensen, Sullivan and everyone else. After you get past Sullivan there's a steep drop-off to the next guy on the list, Spencer Long. To put that drop-off in perspective, PFF says Sullivan graded out with an 84.6 (out of 100) in 2017 while Long was just a 56.0. 

Of course, PFF couldn't really grade Weston Richburg, and that's because he spent most of the season injured. The 26-year-old, who was a second-round pick in 2014, only played in four games this season after suffering a concussion that sent him to injured reserve. As long as teams are confident in his health, Richburg will be one of the top centers in free agency. 

As for Jensen, the Ravens will likely try to re-sign him, but to do that, they're going to have to outbid multiple teams for his services, and one of those teams is likely going to be the Jets

On Sullivan's end, he's definitely going to be looking for a massive raise after playing the 2017 season on a one-year, $999,999 deal. The Rams had one of the worst offensive lines in 2016 and Sullivan was a big reason why they were able to turn things around in 2017.  

Sullivan spent a year with Sean McVay in Washington (2016) and then came with him to Los Angeles. It will be interesting to see what kind of offer the Rams give Sullivan, since he played such a vital part in their offensive resurgence, just ask Jared Goff about that. 

"It takes a lot off my shoulders for sure, with his ability to understand defenses and make a lot of calls up front," Goff said in December, via the Los Angeles Times. " If I see something, and overrule, I can. Ninety-nine percent of the time he's right."

For the Rams, and every other team that has a pending free agent at center, the best move might be to keep the guy you have. As we mentioned, there's just not a lot of talent to choose from and getting an instant upgrade at the position is going to be difficult. 

For instance, Russell Bodine hasn't been great for the Bengals, but unless they plan on splurging on a guy like Jensen or Richburg, their best option might actually be to sign Bodine. That's basically the center position in a nutshell this year. Any of these teams could also look to the draft, but giving the center job to an unproven rookie could lead to total chaos, which is the last thing you want when you're looking for a guy who's going to be touching the football on every play. 

Others: Tim Barnes (49ers), Brian Schwenke, G/C (Titans), Luke Bowanko G/C (Ravens), Jonotthan Harrison (Jets)

CBS Sports Writer

John Breech has been at CBS Sports since July 2011 and currently spends most of his time writing about the NFL. He's believed to be one of only three people in the world who thinks that Andy Dalton will... Full Bio

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