Value is a term thrown around in football constantly. In this latest installment of his series on how much teams value their players, such as quarterbacks and running backs, Dave Archibald looks at the offensive line.
Coaches talk about the importance of winning the battles at the line of scrimmage often, but do they invest accordingly? How teams spend their cap space and their draft picks in their offensive lines, both as a whole and position-by-position, can tell us what they truly think about the “big uglies” up front.
The chart below shows the amount of money and draft value expended on offensive linemen. Money is measured by average cap hit. This is not a perfect measure, as it can be inflated by “funny money” – non-guaranteed years tacked on to the end of the long-term deals – but it can serve as a rough indicator. Draft value is measured by cumulative Draft Trade Value Chart figures through the last four years, plus 2011 first-rounders (more on that methodology):
These figures represent only players currently rostered as of the beginning of the season, not “dead” money or draft value spent on OL no longer with the team. Thus, they do not incorporate traded picks or players.
There are four groups according to spending approach. An interesting pattern emerges when looking at the groups through the lens of Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rates, the two measures Football Outsiders uses to evaluate offensive line units:
All data is through Week 6 of the 2015 season. The two groups that spend the most money see the best performance in terms of pass protection, but their run-blocking statistics are mildly worse. It makes sense that established veterans making significant money are more reliable in the passing game, but is run blocking a young lineman’s endeavor? There is not enough data to draw any conclusions, but it will be interesting to monitor this in future seasons.
Money and Picks
Ten teams invest heavily in their offensive lines, spending an above-average amount of both money and draft capital. Amazingly, all four NFC East teams show up in this group. Washington boasts four players making at least $3.5M per season ‒ left tackle Trent Williams, guards Shaun Lauvao and Brandon Scherff, and center Kory Lichtensteiger ‒ and has also used the draft heavily, tabbing Scherff with the fifth pick in June’s draft, while also selecting Spencer Long, Morgan Moses, and Josh LeRibeus in the third rounds of recent drafts.
The Cowboys built the NFL’s top rushing attack in 2014 with first-round picks Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin, plus veteran Doug Free ($5M salary). The Giants’ underrated group is built on high picks: tackle Ereck Flowers, left guard Justin Pugh, and center Weston Richburg, along with big money to right guard Geoff Schwartz and left tackle Will Beatty. The Eagles are going cheap on guards after jettisoning Evan Mathis in the offseason, but spending big on left tackle Jason Peters and center Travis Kelce, and the fourth overall pick on right tackle Lane Johnson lands them in this category. Many of the other teams in this group are just slightly above-average in dollar spending and / or draft picks.
Notable Performances: Through Week 6, the Bengals have the second-best Adjusted Sack Rate and fourth-best Adjusted Line Yards according to Football Outsiders. The Cardinals are second in ALY and sixth in ASR. The Eagles and Chargers are the two worst teams in ALY.
It’s Only Money
These teams use a considerable amount of their cap on offensive linemen, but have not invested heavily via the draft. The Jets are the most dramatic example, as New York ranks first in invested money but 30th in draft capital spent on linemen. Tackles D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Breno Giacomini, center Nick Mangold, and guard James Carpenter all make at least $4.5M per season, and disappointing third-round pick Brian Winters is the only high draft pick still on a rookie contract.
Notable Performances: The Jets have the best Adjusted Sack Rate. The Broncos are 30th in Adjusted Line Yards. The Vikings have the third-worst ASR.
Youth Is Served
These teams spend less money than average but invest heavily via the draft. No team has used a higher percentage of their draft capital than the Chiefs, who chose tackle Eric Fisher with the #1 overall selection in 2013, and also nabbed Jeff Allen and Mitch Morse with second-round picks. The Detroit Lions have the dubious distinction of being the only team spending less than $10M on their offensive line ‒ 2015 first-rounder Laken Tomlinson is their highest-paid player at just over $2M / year ‒ but they’ve used high picks on Tomlinson and fellow first-rounder Riley Reiff, along with third-rounders Travis Swanson and Larry Warford. Detroit’s 3.4 yards per rushing attempt ranks dead last in the NFL.
Notable Performances: The Falcons are third in Adjusted Line Yards, though they are 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Chiefs have an even more dramatic split, ranking fifth in ALY but 30th in ASR. The Rams have the opposite strengths and weaknesses, ranking 29th in ALY but 13th in ASR. The Titans are tied for the worst ASR in the NFL.
Doing It Cheap
These teams are spending a smaller percentage of both their cap space and their draft picks than the average team, though in many cases at least one of the figures is just a little below league-average. The San Francisco 49ers rode the best offensive line in football to the 2013 Super Bowl, but they’ve lost center Jonathan Goodwin, guard Mike Iupati, and tackle Anthony Davis, replacing them with mid-round pick Marcus Martin, New England castoff Jordan Devey, and budget free agent Erik Pears.
Their division rival Seattle Seahawks are even more tight-fisted when it comes to OL, ranking 29th in cap spending and 31st in draft capital expended, after dealing center Max Unger and letting Carpenter walk in free agency. Left tackle Russell Okung is their only lineman making more than $1 MM / year, and left guard Justin Britt is the only lineman drafted in the first three rounds since 2011. Okung is on the final year of a six-year rookie deal under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement. Since the new CBA limits contracts for first-rounders to five years, he is not counted as a draft pick for this analysis.
Notable Performances: The Patriots are #1 in Adjusted Line Yards, though below-average (24th) in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Ravens have the third-best Adjusted Sack Rate. The Seahawks and 49ers are both in the bottom five in Adjusted Sack Rate, with Seattle tied for worst.
It’s no surprise that teams invest the most in left tackles: protectors of the “blind side.” That’s true with respect to both money and draft capital: the average salary of left tackles is nearly double that of the next position, while the average draft capital is 64% higher than the next position. These figures do not include players currently on the injured reserve or physically unable to perform lists.
Apart from left tackle, the other positions are pretty uniform. Teams spend slightly more money at left guard and center than at right guard and right tackle, but more draft capital at right guard and right tackle. The most curious result is the high amount of draft capital spent at right guard, where recent first-round picks Martin, Scherff, Jonathan Cooper, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, David DeCastro, and Kevin Zeitler play. This seems like more of an oddity than a trend, given how many other teams are going cheap at the position, but it is worth monitoring going forward.
As offensive linemen are often grouped into tackles and interior linemen (guards and centers), the following scatter plot shows how teams divide their resources between tackles and the interior. On average, teams spend about 52% of their O-line money and 42% of their O-line draft capital on interior linemen (this includes all linemen, including backups and injured players):
The spread in cap spending is fairly small, with Dallas (28%), Cincinnati (29%), and Seattle (32%) the only teams spending less than 35% on interior linemen, with Buffalo (78%), Tampa Bay (69%), and New Orleans (68%) the only teams spending more than 65%. However, draft investment is all over the place, with Seattle, Houston, San Francisco, and San Diego basically not selecting tackles and Philadelphia, Minnesota, Atlanta, and New Orleans barely tabbing interior players.
The table below shows the starters at all five offensive line positions for all 32 NFL teams. Players currently on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform lists are not included. Players with above-average salaries for their position are highlighted in gold, players with above-average draft value invested are highlighted in green, and players with both above-average salary and draft value are highlighted in blue. Players that are in the top-five in either salary or draft value are bolded:
It seems as if every team has at least one key offensive lineman with a long-term injury. The chart below shows project offensive line starters currently on injured reserve (season-ending or designated for return):
The Patriots and Vikings both have two players injured long-term, though each should get its center back in the coming weeks. Pittsburgh has a whopping three players on the list, reducing them to their third-string left tackle, ex-Army wideout Alejandro Villanueva.
There is a fairly large spread in how much teams invest overall on the offensive line, how they divide their capital between draft picks and salary, and how they prize interior players versus tackles. And despite many teams’ best-laid plans, injury often dictates they are fielding a different group than they intended.
The data is inconclusive as far as how investing in the offensive line pays off, but 2015 results suggest that higher salaries translate to better pass protection, but not necessarily a more efficient running game. Given the fundamental role that the line plays in both the passing and running games, teams need to make sure they get solid performance out of the big boys up front ‒ which usually means investing money, draft picks, or both.
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