For well over a decade, the NFL has placed more and more emphasis on the passing game. With this emphasis has come an increased importance on protecting quarterbacks, especially their blindsides. Dave Archibald discusses the offensive line value that can be found when teams veer from the accepted practice of investing disproportionately at left tackle.
Michael Oher became famous before his NFL career even began. Oher was only a sophomore at Ole Miss when Michael Lewis released his 2006 book The Blind Side, but the youngster already loomed larger than life. His rare size and athleticism, Lewis explained, made Oher one of the most coveted athletes in sports: a prototypical left tackle, or “blind side” protector. Those athletic gifts allowed Oher, essentially orphaned at the age of seven, to transcend his impoverished upbringing and ultimately catapult himself into the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Oher’s Cinderella story took a few turns from there, however, as he bounced between two positions and three teams before settling in with the Carolina Panthers in 2015. He may not go down as the next Jonathan Ogden or Joe Thomas, but Oher might be something just as valuable in 2016: a player who can provide competent left tackle play at a discount price.
When The Blind Side came out in 2006, weakside edge rushers ruled, with standouts like the San Diego Chargers’ Shawne Merriman (17 sacks), the Buffalo Bills’ Aaron Schobel (14), and the Miami Dolphins’ Jason Taylor (13.5) wreaking havoc from the quarterback’s blind side. Of the 18 players who registered 10 sacks that season, 11 played right end (RE) or right outside linebacker (ROLB) and primarily rushed against the left tackle:
Less than a decade later, the paradigm has shifted, and many of the game’s top edge rushers attack elsewhere. J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, who led the NFL with 17.5 sacks in 2015, is a 3-4 end that primarily plays on the left side, matched up against the right tackle or right guard. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Von Miller plays left outside linebacker (LOLB) for the Denver Broncos. Three defensive tackles (DT) hit double-digit sacks in 2015: Aaron Donald of the Rams (11), Kawann Short of the Panthers (11), and Geno Atkins of the Bengals (11). In 2006, the Oakland Raiders’ Warren Sapp was the only DT to get 10 sacks. In total, only six of 16 defenders tallying 10 sacks in 2015 routinely matched up with the left tackle.
Protecting the quarterback is as important as ever, but NFL teams that narrow their focus exclusively to the blind side will end up regretting it. Cleveland’s Thomas might be the best left tackle in the game, but as Chase Stuart writes, “Thomas’ value is limited by the ability of his fellow offensive linemen. If Cleveland has a terrible right guard, it doesn’t matter how long Thomas can neutralize the opposing right edge rusher if another defender is getting to the quarterback in two seconds.” Despite Thomas’ presence, the Browns allowed 53 sacks in 2015, which ranked 31st in the league.
Proponents of left tackle spending will argue that a quarterback could suffer an injury on a blindside hit, with Lewis pointing to the example of Washington quarterback Joe Theismann’s gruesome injury at the hands of Giants rusher Lawrence Taylor. Such injuries are rare, however, and that fear is overblown. Andy Benoit notes that a modern quarterback “spends 75% of his time in the shotgun, where he almost immediately has a much wider scope of vision; if he’s right handed, he sees the full right side of the field and almost all of the left.
There is no ‘blind side’ anymore.” Anecdotally, few injuries occur on sacks from the left side.
This preseason, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was injured sliding on a scramble, while Minnesota Vikings signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater suffered a non-contact injury in practice. Late last season, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton broke his thumb making a tackle. Earlier in 2015, Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts suffered rib, shoulder, and internal injuries on a scramble where he was hit head-on. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco tore his ACL on blindside contact, but it was caused by his own lineman rolling onto his legs.
Between increased use of shotgun formations and roughing the passer rules that protect the quarterback, there is little reason to think a quarterback is more likely to be injured on a blindside hit than any other kind of contact. Football is a violent sport and injuries can happen anytime. Reducing the number of hits on the quarterback will do more to prevent injury than worrying about any particular kind of hit.
Most teams are still stuck in the 2006 mindset, paying their left tackles vastly more than the other positions across the offensive line. Last season, left tackles averaged nearly double the salary of each of the other OL positions, and teams invested 64% more draft capital than the next-highest OL spot. From a roster construction standpoint, playing a budget left tackle provides an economic advantage that cannot be found anywhere else on the offensive line. A league-minimum center will save about $2.5M relative to an average one, but a league-minimum tackle will save more than $6M relative to average. Even though the typical team carries eight or nine offensive linemen, teams spend on average 27% of their total offensive line expenditure on just the starting left tackle:
Left tackle salaries average about $7M, but the low salary paid to players on rookie contracts depresses that average. The 11 players on rookie contracts average less than $3M per season, while the 21 veteran left tackles average more than $9M. While the rookie contracts do not entail a major monetary investment, they often use precious draft capital:
Player Team Year Round Pick
Seven of the 11 left tackles on rookie deals were first-round picks, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Donovan Smith with the second pick of the second round in 2015. These eight players are not truly low-cost left tackles, as their teams spent draft capital on them that they could have invested elsewhere.
The Budget Linemen
Some teams, whether by accident or by design, are employing inexpensive left tackles and reaping the benefits in the construction of the rest of their roster. The list below includes many of the game’s savviest teams: Seattle, Green Bay, Carolina, Denver, and Pittsburgh.
Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh Steelers
Villanueva has one of the most unusual and inspiring journeys in all of professional football. The 27-year-old made his NFL debut in 2015, his football career interrupted by three tours of duty as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. Villanueva spent his senior season at Army playing wide receiver, and the Eagles experimented with him at defensive end in camp two years ago, but injuries thrust the 6’9”, 320-pounder into action at left tackle after a year on the practice squad. The season was not without its struggles – Bleacher Report ranked Villanueva its 30th-best LT for the NFL 1000 project – but he won the job heading into 2016 and Pittsburgh did not bring in major competition in the offseason.
Villanueva has the team-friendliest contract of any starting left tackle; he is scheduled to make $525,000 in 2016, and will be an exclusive rights free agent at the end of his contract. This team-friendly deal lets the Steelers spend elsewhere, including on fellow linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. The Pittsburgh offensive line ranked eighth in both of Football Outsider’s offensive line metrics, Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate. Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers line 14th in the NFL entering the 2016 season.
The Steelers have had a knack for filling the left tackle position on the cheap in recent seasons. Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round pick in 2012, started 39 games during four seasons in Pittsburgh, 33 on the blind side. At 6’2” with 33 ¼-inch arms, Beachum is significantly undersized compared to what most teams look for in a left tackle. Despite these physical drawbacks, he has established himself as an above-average blocker, earning a five-year, $45M contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the offseason. There, he forced former #2 overall pick and prototypical physical specimen Luke Joeckel inside to guard.
Donald Penn, Oakland Raiders
Like Beachum, Penn is an undersized tackle who has nonetheless carved out an impressive career. The underrated 32-year-old has started 140 consecutive games for the Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was rated Bleacher Report’s seventh-best left tackle in 2015. Penn stands just 6’4” with 33-inch arms, so despite his durability and success, he has rarely been highly-compensated. He signed a two-year, $11.9M deal in the offseason after spending his first two seasons in Oakland on an even more modest two-year, $9.6M deal. Penn’s contract has helped Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie be aggressive in the free agent market; in addition to Penn, guards Kelechi Osemele and Austin Howard and center Rodney Hudson were all free-agent signees. Penn has the lowest cap hit in 2016 of that quartet. Pro Football Focus evaluates the Oakland offensive line as the league’s second-best entering the season.
The man Penn replaced in Oakland, Jared Veldheer, is also a relative bargain for his new team, the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona took on a risk inking Veldheer to a long-term deal after the tackle missed 11 games in the 2013 season, but the 29-year-old’s five-year, $35M deal only looks better over time. Veldheer has played every game in his two seasons with the Cardinals, and his reasonable contract has helped Arizona ink free agent guards Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis.
David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers
Every team wants to build through the draft, but no general manager is as committed to the practice as Green Bay’s Ted Thompson. Most teams plan to fill positions through the draft, but when things go awry – as they always do, to some degree – they reach for their checkbooks. But not Thompson. When injuries struck former first-round picks Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in 2013, Thompson plugged in Bakhtiari, a fourth-round rookie. The Colorado product stuck. Like Penn and Beachum, Bakhtiari is undersized (6’4” with 34-inch arms), causing many pundits to project him to guard. The 24-year-old has been adequate, however, ranking as Bleacher Report’s #17 left tackle, and forcing Bulaga to right tackle even after he returned to health. Pro Football Focus ranks Green Bay’s offensive line the NFL’s third-best entering 2016 (prior to the recent cut of Josh Sitton).
The Bears undoubtedly envy their division rival’s success over the past decade or two, and they’ve decided to emulate the Packers with a late-round left tackle of their own. Leno is an undersized tackle – stop me if you’ve heard this before – at 6’4”, but he does boast above-average arm length at 34 ⅜ inches. Chicago plugged in the seventh-round rookie when veteran Jermon Bushrod missed time with a concussion and shoulder injury early in the 2015 season, and the 24-year-old ended up starting 14 games. He didn’t necessarily play well – Bleacher Report ranked him the #32 left tackle, and PFF sizes up Chicago’s offensive line as third-worst entering the season – but his cost-controlled deal lets the Bears invest elsewhere, such as on right tackle Bobby Massie and the recently-inked guard Sitton.
Bradley Sowell, Seattle Seahawks
Sowell, a former teammate of Oher’s at Ole Miss, started 12 games at left tackle for the Cardinals in 2013 but has seen scant playing time since. Sowell will anchor the game’s lowest-paid offensive line, with all five projected starters scheduled to make less than $1M. The unit struggled mightily in 2015 and PFF projects them as the NFL’s worst entering the season. This budget approach to the offensive line has let the Seahawks spend elsewhere, however, and quarterback Russell Wilson, cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas, and tight end Jimmy Graham all rank among the league’s highest-paid players at their respective positions.
Seattle’s 2015 starter at left tackle, former sixth-overall pick Russell Okung, inked a deal with the defending champion Denver Broncos in the offseason. On paper, Okung’s five-year, $53M deal is market rate, but the 27-year old has a cap hit of $5.2M in 2016 and a paltry $800K guaranteed after the season. If Okung can stay healthy – he has never played a full 16-game season – he might prove a bargain, and the minimal guaranteed outlay means little downside risk for Denver. Last year the Broncos won a Super Bowl with journeyman right tackle Ryan Harris starting on the left side, so general manager John Elway knows he can win with just adequate play on the blind side.
Michael Oher, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers bought low on Oher, whose career was on life support after the Tennessee Titans cut him one injury-plagued season into a four-year contract. The 6’5”, 309-pounder played on the right side in his one year in Nashville and his final seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, but shifted back to the blind side to replace Byron Bell in Carolina. Oher is in the final season of a two-year, $7M deal and recently signed a three-year, $21.6M extension to keep him in black and blue through 2019.
Oher’s contract helped general manager Dave Gettleman claw out of the salary cap hole that his predecessor Marty Hurney had dug. It also allows the team employ high-priced players like center Ryan Kalil and quarterback Cam Newton. In 2015, Carolina led the league in points and finished second in rushing yards behind the MVP performance of Newton and perhaps the game’s most underrated offensive line.
There are common threads running through the budget left tackles described above. Some, like Villanueva, followed unconventional paths. Oher had become something of an afterthought because of his inconsistent play in Baltimore and Tennessee. Denver’s deal with Okung is a similar upside gamble on a talent who has not always delivered. The majority of these value tackles are undersized. Savvy teams will begin (and perhaps, have already begun) wondering whether height or arm length really matters and actively seeking out players who don’t fit conventional notions of left tackle builds or backgrounds. The universe of 6’4” college tackles with 33-inch arms is much larger than the universe of 6’7” college tackles with 35-inch arms, and these players should prove to be much less expensive. Rookies Cody Whitehair of the Bears, Joe Thuney of the Patriots, and Rees Odhiambo of the Seahawks were successful college tackles who are starting their careers inside because they are a bit small. They could potentially provide low-cost solutions at left tackle, and give their teams an edge over opponents who are paying a premium for a prototypical behemoth.
Any money saved at left tackle can be used to bolster the team elsewhere, including the other four offensive line positions. Given the increase in pass rush attacking from the middle and right side, wise teams will seek to distribute their money more evenly across the offensive line. NFL teams cannot spend everywhere, and while it seems risky to skimp on the blindside protector, fear of that risk is creating an inflated market. Teams who are willing to be outliers can get a competitive advantage. The model described in The Blind Side grows increasingly obsolete, and Oher has become representative of the new paradigm: winning through modest investment in undervalued assets. Come to think of it, that sounds like a different Michael Lewis book.