Quality guards won't come cheap once lockout is lifted

The free agent/trade talk throughout the offseason has been focused on what the quarterback market will look like once the lockout is lifted. We've ignored looking at many other positions.

Today, I want to look at guards, because just wait until you see some of the dollar figures that could drive this market.

First, there weren't enough quality guards available in the draft to affect the potential free-agent market. The top selection, Baylor's Danny Watkins, went 23rd overall to the Eagles. After Watkins, though, the next guard didn't come off the board until pick No. 75, when the Seahawks selected John Moffitt from Wisconsin. A total of 12 guards were drafted this year, but the reality is teams in search of a starter are looking ahead to free agency.

Veteran Robert Gallery turned down a deal to stay with the Oakland Raiders before the lockout to take his chances in free agency. It was probably a good business decision, but things will change quickly if players with four and five years of experience are declared free agents pending the outcome of the new CBA. The quality of four- and five-year players is excellent: Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl of the Falcons would enter the market, as well as Davin Joseph (Tampa Bay), Deuce Lutui (Arizona), Daryn Colledge (Green Bay) and Marshal Yanda (Baltimore).

Teams looking for a guard will love this list, but they might not like the type of money it will take to land those players.

The evolution of the salary structure at the guard position is interesting. When the franchise tag was established in 1993, the offensive line wasn't sub-divided among positions like the defensive line. On defense there was a difference between tackles and ends, but on offense the franchise tag had an umbrella over left tackles, right tackles, guards, and centers. Consequently, guard salaries were inflated because of the contracts given to left tackles.

The top five offensive linemen salaries all belong to left tackles: Jason Peters (Philadelphia), Jake Long (Miami), D'Brickashaw Ferguson (N.Y. Jets), Marcus McNeill (San Diego) and Jordan Gross (Carolina). However, when the Patriots franchised guard Logan Mankins, he received the average of those five tackles. A franchise tag might not exist in a reformed free-agent system, but the damage has been done for the teams who want to go after any of the guards mentioned above.

It's clear why teams didn't tag these potential free-agent guards when they had the chance to a few months ago. They know that agents will want to work off the top five guard contracts already in the books, which, as you can see, are quite lucrative.

Not all of the potential free agents will get deals like those, but a few will. The next tier will then work off these deals to secure something very good and not far off these numbers. Get ready to see a few guards sign seven-year deals with $10-15 million in signing bonuses and a four-year average salary close to $8 million.

How ready will teams be to participate in the guard market when free agency starts? If a team or two are ready to go, those who hesitate will be out of the market within the first few days.

Like I've said before, teams will have to make tough free-agent decisions in a short period of time.

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