Offensive linemen have one of the more unheralded jobs on the football field, but the left tackle gets twice the publicity of the other four linemen combined. Left tackles are valued higher in the draft and get paid more.
The NFL clearly values the blind side pass protector more than any other position on the offensive line. Conventional wisdom says you hang on to good left tackles and you pay them the premium that they demand.
This conventional wisdom says the Denver Broncos should hang on to free agent left tackle Ryan Clady by either giving him a long-term contract or using the franchise tag. That’s probably what will happen, but considering the cost it makes sense to ask if he's worth it. The truth is, Clady is extremely valuable to the Broncos.
The value of any player is driven by a variety of factors, but it all comes back to supply and demand. Supply and demand are going to drive market rates for left tackles as much as it does coffee beans, and the key to being successful in the NFL is maximizing the impact of every dollar.
The dangerous thing about the demand for a left tackle is that it’s hard to tell what is driving it. Is the demand for left tackles driven by scarcity, impact or something else? A good running back impacts the game a lot, but they are quite common.
One fair assumption: The demand for left tackles is tied to their ability to pass protect. The NFL is a pass-centric league and pass protection should be weighted accordingly. Clady was one of the best in the league in pass protection in 2012.
Look no further than the San Diego Chargers to find a team that had a serious deficiency at left tackle. This deficiency hurt the Chargers severely because it impacted the quarterback which means it impacted the entire offense. It’s clear that the impact a good left tackle can make is what drives the market, even if great quarterbacks are able to get by without one.
There are probably 10 teams that don’t have a player they feel comfortable with at left tackle and only a few become available each year. Teams want an impact left tackle and with 10 teams looking and only a few available the competition drives up the value.
The other component in determining Clady’s value will be the supply of left tackles available. How many good left tackles are available that can start right away? We don’t know yet which left tackles are going to hit the market, but there are several notable one who will be free agents.
Jake Long, Branden Albert, Jermon Bushrod, Sam Baker, William Beatty and Andre Smith will all be free agents if their teams don’t re-sign or place the franchise tag on them. Probably only of couple of these guys will actually be able to test the market.
The franchise tag of approximately $9.7 million doesn’t seem like a bad option for the top free-agent tackle on ProFootballFocus' list. Franchising Clady locks in his value, but it also keeps it from skyrocketing based on the market rate for left tackles.
Teams pay more money for less production from free agents. Unlike the draft, signing free agents at left tackle is like shopping at a specialty store. Good left tackles have traits that are unique among offensive linemen. It just doesn’t make sense to not retain one of the best left tackle for a comparable price as lesser free agents.
Even though Clady will have surgery on his right shoulder and he turned down a five-year, $50 million contract last year, the Broncos would be unwise not to realize Clady’s value and pay him accordingly. It seems like a near certainty that the Broncos will place the franchise tag on Clady while the two sides work toward a long-term contract.
Despite their inability to come to an agreement on the contract last year, the Broncos will actually get more for about the same price as they would if they were shopping for a left tackle on the open market.
Elite quarterbacks like Peyton Manning can still produce without an elite left tackle like Clady, but that doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish more together. Manning is great and makes other players around him better, but he still needs those players to be good on their own.
Clady was up to the challenge of protecting Manning in 2012 and the Broncos would be wise to pass even more in 2013. The Broncos will re-sign Clady because it's the best thing for the football team.