Linemen earning big money has been the early trend of NFL free agency in 2014. The market has been awash with lucrative deals for players on both sides of the trenches.
At least 10 high-profile linemen inked lavish contracts on day one of free agency. The run on big men is a reflection of how championship teams are built from the front.
The NFL may have evolved into a faster-paced, pass-first league, but that has only increased the need for talented bodies on both sides of the trenches.
With more offenses operating pass-heavy schemes, protection up front has to be outstanding. Often times quarterbacks spread out defenses with five potential pass-catchers.
That leaves five blockers to deal not only with a D-line, but a host of potential blitzers.
The more a quarterback passes, the more he is exposed to hits. That demands stellar and consistent protectors.
This reality was reflected when the Miami Dolphins gave $46 million to ex-Kansas City Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert. It was reinforced when the Arizona Cardinals awarded former Oakland Raider Jared Veldheer a $7 million per year contract.
Both deals were reported by ESPN Insider Adam Schefter:
Former Chiefs OT Branden Albert reached agreement on a 5-yr, $46M deal including $25M GTD with the Miami Dolphins.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 11, 2014
Former Raiders OT Jared Veldheer reached agreement on a 5-yr, $35M deal with Cardinals, per ESPN league sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 11, 2014
Veldheer's former team took things a step further. They handed bumper deals to a pair of less heralded tackles, Austin Howard and Rodger Saffold, per NFL Media Insiders Ian Rapoport and Albert Breer:
Rams OL Rodger Saffold has agreed to a five-year, $42.5 million deal with the Oakland Raiders.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 11, 2014
That Saffold, who has only completed a 16-game season once in four years, received that kind of money, is definitive proof that NFL teams are desperate for even competent linemen.
The same is true on the other side of the ball. The Chicago Bears gave another former Raider, end Lamarr Houston, $15 million in guaranteed money, per Rapoport:
Lamarr Houston’s headed to the #Bears for $35M over five years with $15M guaranteed. Solid for versatile DE>— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 11, 2014
That is a hefty outlay for a player whose career-high in sacks is last season's six. But the 26-year-old Houston is considered a young player on the rise, with the potential to create pressure from multiple positions.
In the modern pass-first era, teams will justify paying over the odds for any player who can help them find more ways to get after the quarterback.
That's why end Michael Johnson received $8.5 million per year and $24 million guaranteed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to CBS Sports reporter Jason La Canfora.
But the rash of eye-watering contracts handed out to D-linemen didn't just go to pass-rushers.
The Atlanta Falcons spent a small fortune to sign end Tyson Jackson and nose tackle Paul Soliai. Both are solid players, but are firmly in the bracket of run-stuffers who absorb blockers.
But that didn't stop Jackson from earning $25 million over five years, or Soliai from receiving $35 million with $14 million guaranteed, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Jackson and Soliai weren't the only beefy interior trench warriors to strike it rich. Linval Joseph, another big-bodied nose tackle, joined the Minnesota Vikings.
He was no doubt persuaded to leave the New York Giants by the $31.5 million the Vikings agreed to pay him over five years, per figures from Schefter.
Joseph is undoubtedly a talented player, but he is still an interior linemen with only nine sacks in four seasons, about to earn over $6 million annually.
The early stages of free agency have proved one thing: NFL teams will continue stockpiling talent along the frontlines, even if they have to overpay to do it.