A franchise left tackle used to be vitally important to building a good football team. Maybe that’s still true, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the number of good left tackles hitting free agency this year.
Sam Baker, Branden Albert, Jermon Bushrod and Jake Long will all be free agents. Some of these players didn’t have a great year, but have in the past. Bryant McKinnie will also be a free agent as well as several good right tackles. The obvious question must be asked: Are franchise tackles as vital to success as they used to be, and should you pay top dollar to make sure you have one?
Considering the flood of left tackles to the market, you have to also wonder if the Broncos may want to re-think giving Ryan Clady the franchise tag. This is especially true since the quarterback for the next couple years will be Peyton Manning, who has thrived without a franchise left tackle for most of his career.
It seems like an easy decision to franchise Clady and try to sign him to a long-term deal to bring his cap number down. He’s one of the best left tackles in football, he had a great year and he’s fully healthy. He’s also going to cost a lot of money. If he doesn’t sign the most lucrative contract of all the free-agent tackles, it will be a surprise.
The worst decision is sometimes the easiest and most obvious one. No one has stopped to ask if Clady is worth the money he will be given, even if he’s the best left tackle in the game. Maybe the Broncos have considered it and have determined he’s worth $12 million per year.
Putting the best team on the field often means exploiting inefficiencies in the market and not paying a lot of money for a commodity that is readily available.
The Value of a Left Tackle
What’s the impact of a franchise left tackle? There are people who believe that a good quarterback can negate the impact of the left tackle. That’s probably true, but the quarterback also might be compromising production to do it.
Since making it to the playoffs with the goal of winning the Super Bowl is the goal, I decided to look at the left tackles of every playoff team in 2012. There were just two teams that made the playoffs without a franchise left tackle: the Ravens and the Packers.
The Ravens went on to win it all. Perhaps, their situation was unique since McKinnie has shown that he can be a franchise left tackle in the past. McKinnie might not be a franchise left tackle, but he played like one in the playoffs. The impact was there, and Flacco had all the time in the world to throw deep.
Only one or two teams made the playoffs without a franchise quarterback, depending on how you view Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. Ponder had Adrian Peterson on his side, which is a unique situation.
Are the quarterbacks making the left tackles look better than they are? Maybe, but it’s tough to evaluate. I took a look at Pro Football Focus’ top left tackles, their teams and their quarterback situation. A half-dozen teams with franchise left tackles made the playoffs, and another half-dozen didn’t. The difference was quite clearly the quarterback.
The best quarterback who didn’t make the playoffs with a franchise left tackle was Eli Manning, but he had a very inconsistent year. The rest of the list includes Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Brandon Weeden and Mark Sanchez. The worst quarterback who made the playoffs of this group was Dalton.
What does it mean?
Having a franchise left tackle doesn’t guarantee success if you don’t also have a quarterback, but it does help a franchise quarterback to have blindside protection. A good left tackle is worth something, but the value of the position is heavily tied to the skills of quarterback.
The better the quarterback, the more you can get away with not paying for a top left tackle. This seems to make sense with what we know about pass protection. A good quarterback will avoid a sack and/or get the ball out for a short completion instead of taking the sack or throwing the interception.
Michael Oher would have been the lowest-graded left tackle to start in the playoffs in 2012, but since he shifted to right tackle, it was Marshall Newhouse. Aaron Rodgers was able to hide a lot of Newhouse’s deficiencies throughout the year, and he would only be slightly better if the Packers upgraded to a franchise left tackle.
To win in the NFL, a team needs a franchise quarterback and a left tackle who is adequate. Newhouse, Oher, Bushrod and Costanzo fall into this range. What you can’t have is a terrible left tackle like Mike Harris or Max Starks, but a franchise tackle does not independently make the quarterback or offense better.
What to do?
It’s in the Broncos’ best interest to not give Clady the franchise tag with so many options out there. Chances are the Broncos will be able to find an adequate player to take Clady’s place if they can sign him for less. By franchising Clady, he gains a lot of leverage because of the guaranteed nature of the tag.
The market is going to set what the Broncos will have to pay Clady long-term regardless of the franchise tag, so it makes sense to let him test the waters while the team shops for cheaper options. It’s risky, because there’s always the chance of losing Clady and being unable to sign a replacement.
The Broncos will ultimately decide to tag Clady because they can’t put Manning and the offense at risk—not when this team is on the cusp of greatness and not when a Super Bowl is on the line and your start quarterback could be one bad hit from retirement.
Sometimes, you are willing to overpay for the known, even when the unknown is a better value. It’s like grocery shopping and spending the extra money for the name brand instead of the store brand.
Usually the store brand is going to be a better value and still get the job done, but there’s always the risk that the store brand is out of stock, and by the time you decide you still want the name brand, someone has snatched up the last one.