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Can Faneca Help Motivate This Struggling Offensive Line?

As I watched our offensive line again struggle yesterday, I found myself thinking: will the shoddy, inconsistent play of the Steelers line affect All-Pro Guard Alan Faneca's market value this offseason? My next question was, if he thought it might, why isn't he doing more to help this line make progress.

Of course, maybe Faneca is doing everything in his power to help out the less experienced and talented members of the line in the film room and during practice. I don't know, and will never know. But I was able to do some research on whether the collective play of an offensive line seemed to have any impact on any one individual's market value during free agency.

Here's a few free agent guards from a year ago that got paid handsomely last year in free agency:

  • Derrick Dockery: The Bills signed Dockery to a 7-year $49 million dollar contract this offseason, with a whopping $18 million guaranteed. Pro Bowls for Mr. Dockery? 0. And how did his offensive line do the year before his signing?  Pretty darn good actually, as the 'Skins only allowed 19 sacks, good for third best in the NFL.
  • Eric Steinbach: The Browns signed Guard Eric Steinbach to a 7-year deal worth $49.5 million, $17 million of which is guaranteed. Even if Steinbach fizzles out due to injury problems (looks like he'll remain on the shelf for the rest of this season), he's still on the books for $23 million over the first three years of the deal. The case of Steinbach is particularly interesting. First off, he's a guard like Faneca, and the market for guards has not yet become as ubiquitously irrational as it has for tackles. Yet this deal is astronomical for a guy like Steinbach, who's undoubtedly solid, but not a revolutionary at his position as his contract suggests. How did Steinbach's offensive line do as a unit in 2006 when he was with the Bengals? Only thirteen teams surrendered more sacks than the Bengals, while their rushing attack was only 26th best in the NFL.
  • Kris Dielman: A number of teams made a run at the talented San Diego Charger Guard, but ultimately Dielman re-signed with San Diego for 6-years and $39 million. Dielman certainly was a big part of San Diego's explosive offense last year, and was handsomely rewarded in return. Dielman is younger than Faneca at age 26, but isn't considered quite as good as Faneca was in his prime.

So are there any clear-cut correlations between performance and pay in the market for high-profile offensive linemen? Well, the trend is that the market is not completely rational in that teams are more than willing to take huge cap hits and financial risks on guards that are still in their physical prime, even if they are not yet established Pro-Bowlers. However, there are signs that most teams are still wary of spending excessively on older players. Take Chicago Guard Ruben Brown, who signed a 1-year deal worth $2.2 million in the offseason. At age 35 but with 9 Pro Bowl appearances on his resume, the Bears were wise in not committing long-term to Brown. Smart move it turns out, as Brown has been put on IR with a shoulder injury. Faneca, who turns 31 next month, obviously has a few more years of productive football left in him than Brown, but I'm wondering if Faneca is truly set to earn the blockbuster pay-check many expect him to sign.

Faneca's big deal in 2003 was considered to be the tipping point for guards on the open market. Since things have gotten out of control, and there may be no signs of it slowing down when you consider the salary cap will escalate to $109 million next year.

So while the market for free-agent guards does not appear to be completely rational in terms of pay-for-performance, it's more than likely that Faneca will still receive lucrative offers from GMs with money to burn that are looking to win immediately. The true test of the market's rationality will be whether Faneca is awarded a deal that has any sort of weight at all on the backend of the deal. Gobs of guaranteed money up front and in the first several years of the deal are all but guaranteed. What's not yet clear is whether GMs will analyze Faneca's 2006 and 2007 performance and realize he's not worth the long-term financial commitment that other less financially long-term thinking front-offices might bid for his services.

Tying it back to my original question, I suppose I'm forced to conclude that although Faneca would be doing his bank account a favor by anchoring a dominant line (which this one is most certainly not in the eyes of everybody but Phil Simms), he probably won't suffer too much of a downswing in his market value regardless of how this season ends up for the Steelers. In fact, those GMs interested in Faneca have probably already adopted a long-term plan involving Faneca that won't be affected by his play this year, so long as he stays healthy. The only direction his value might shift is upward in the event that the Steelers win the Super Bowl, and he's given more credit than perhaps deserved for the team's success.