Guard is maybe my favorite position to analyze in this “potential free agent profile” series because I feel that this will be the position most closely looked at by the Falcons in free agency this year. With that being said, it’s time to look at another guard who may catch Thomas Dimitroff’s eye this spring: Justin Pugh.
The former 19th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Pugh has played out his rookie contract with the New York Giants and is about to enter free agency following a season where he was largely on the shelf due to injury.
The Giants face a unique situation in regards to their former first rounder. New York’s offensive line has been a point of weakness for quite some time. Justin Pugh (when he’s actually on the field) is the best player on that line, but the Giants may be forced to let him go because franchise tagging him is expected to cost $14.3 million. That’s a figure that may be too costly for new GM Dave Gettleman to afford.
With Pugh expected to hit the open market, let’s look at if the Falcons should go after him to shore up the interior of their own offensive line.
The case for signing Justin Pugh
Justin Pugh's mobility is exceptional. He gets to the second level with ease, is incredibly rangy and plays with phenomenal body control and footwork. He fits like a glove into the zone-blocking scheme Atlanta likes to run due to his agility and athleticism. Even coming out of college, Justin Pugh's ideal position was said to be guard in a zone-blocking scheme.
Pugh is also versatile, having played right tackle throughout most of his career. Naturally, he would slide in at guard for the Falcons, but if one of Jake Matthews or Ryan Schraeder ever went down Atlanta wouldn’t have to rely on the likes of Ty Sambrailo to play meaningful snaps at right tackle with Pugh being able to slide over.
The Spotrac estimate for Pugh is at 4 years for $23,983,874: an annual salary of $5,995,968. This figure looks low for a player of Pugh’s caliber and versatility (we’ll get to why that is in a minute), and I will be the first to say that he will probably make closer to the $8-9 million range annually when all is said and done. Even so, this is still less than the annual $11-12 million that elite guards have been commanding the past couple of offseasons (this is the range that fellow free agent guard Andrew Norwell will fall into).
From 2015-17, Pugh has allowed the fourth fewest QB pressures allowed among all guards in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (though it should be noted that he has played at least 350 fewer snaps than each of Marshall Yanda, Josh Sitton and Zack Martin, all of whom appear in the top five of that list). Pugh is also in the middle of his prime, as 2018 will be his age-28 season.
The case against signing Justin Pugh
If there is one major red flag with Justin Pugh entering this free agency period, it’s his durability problem. Pugh has missed 13 games in the past two seasons, including eight last season due to a back injury. While he won’t need surgery for this ailment, back injuries are very dangerous and tend to linger, as Sam Baker can attest. This lack of durability is the reason for his low valuation among guards (salary wise) in the free agent market.
While he (probably) won’t come close to making as much money as Andrew Norwell this offseason, a bidding war should nonetheless be expected to drive Pugh’s price much higher than Sporac’s valuation of him. At $6 million annually, he would be a no-brainer for the Falcons; at closer to $8 million or $9 million annually, there would have to be more of a debate which would need to take place at Flowery Branch.
The primary physical concern with Pugh which needs just briefly to be mentioned is his short arm length. This is something that won’t hinder him at the guard position, but it does put a cap on his ceiling as a tackle. It’s just something to keep in mind in case he ever does need to slide over to one of the tackle positions.
Verdict: Go after Justin Pugh if Andrew Norwell proves to be too expensive
I wrote up the potential free agent profile on Andrew Norwell recently, and in that article, I advocated that the Falcons should try and sign All-Pro. Well, if he proves to be too expensive (and he might be) then Justin Pugh would be the free agent at the top of my wish list for Atlanta.
The reasoning for signing Pugh is similar to that of signing Norwell. The Falcons are in the middle of their window right now, and bringing in a good free agent guard to replace Wes Schweitzer would go a long way in solidifying the offense and maximizing that window.
While the draft is obviously an option, there is no guarantee that a rookie would be ready to make an impact from day one. Most of the key contributors on offense are currently in the middle of their primes; bringing in a guard who is ready to plug in and play at a high level from day one would be the wisest move to make in regards to getting the most out of that side of the ball in 2018.
I don’t blame you if the back issues give you pause in regards to this former Syracuse standout, but that’s the red flag which could pull him within Atlanta’s price range. Justin Pugh is a perfect fit for the Falcons’ offense, and he may just prove to be the missing piece of the puzzle.