Branden Albert's Shortcomings Won't Stop Him from Making Elite Left Tackle Money

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Branden Albert's Shortcomings Won't Stop Him from Making Elite Left Tackle Money
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Branden Albert is a good pass-protecting left tackle, so Branden Albert is worth his weight in gold.

The franchise-tagged player of the Kansas City Chiefs is due to be a free agent for the second year in a row. This time, it looks like head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey are going to let Albert hit the market, according to ESPN.com.

This is the endgame in a strategy plotted by Reid and Dorsey during their first offseason, when they franchised Albert and drafted rookie tackle Eric Fisher with the No. 1 overall pick. They thought to either trade Albert to a team in need and roll with Fisher, or keep Albert at left tackle and let Fisher get some experience on the right side before taking over in 2014.

Even a mediocre left tackle is an expensive date at the free-agency buffet (see: Bushrod, Jermon), and the Chiefs are apparently content to let someone else pick up the check.

Who'll be willing to pay his tab, and what kind of player will they be getting in return?

 

The Basics

Albert stands 6'5" and weighs 315 pounds. A high school basketball standout who picked up football his junior year, per NFL.comAlbert quickly developed into a three-time all-conference guard at the University of Virginia.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

He got a look at left tackle his junior year when starter Eugene Monroe (now of the Baltimore Ravens) went down with an injury. Albert's athleticism and footwork served him well as a tackle, and his height and lean frame implied plenty of upside.

His 2008 draft class was loaded with tackle talent: No. 1 overall pick Jake Long, Ryan Clady and Chris Williams were all drafted before Albert was taken at No. 15 overall. Gosder Cherilus, Jeff Otah, Sam Baker and Duane Brown all came off the board between Albert and the end of the first round.

Though Albert has started 85 games over his first five seasons in the NFL, he's still a bit of an enigma. He's got the lean, athletic frame of a modern pass protector like the San Francisco 49ers' Joe Staley, yet in his first few seasons played more like the guard-in-transition he was.

Albert has never been dominant, and usually misses a game or two every season due to injury. He only started all 16 games once in his career, in 2010, despite being drafted to start.

 

The Scouting Report

Here's what fellow Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Matt Miller had to say about Albert in 2013's B/R 1000, where Miller rated Albert the NFL's 13th-best left tackle coming into the season:

Albert is a good athlete who can hold the edge with quickness and a solid first punch. He knows how to stun pass-rushers and is strong enough to hold his ground against inside moves.

He will get blown off the ball in the run game as he fires off too high. He has a tendency to plant his feet and try to reach with his arms, which extends his upper body and causes him to lose balance. He has to learn to keep his weight transferred and his body over his feet. 

Albert might be a bit overrated when you see him on film. He was a good pass-protector this year, but he was the opposite as a run-blocker. Albert needs to find balance and give more effort in the run game.

Albert's 2013 wasn't as good as his 2012 campaign (which we'll discuss momentarily), but he received his first Pro Bowl nod—following the time-honored tradition of naming offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl the year after they deserve it.

 

The Numbers

Offensive linemen are notoriously hard to judge from an objective, numbers-based perspective. The only place to get hard information on individual offensive linemen is Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and their grades are a wonderful tool.

That said, too often PFF stats are simply quoted with the number of the overall ranking, without taking into account games played, or any of the other PFF grades or statistics. Since PFF started grading in 2008—Albert's rookie season—and normalizes its grades to that year, we can do an apples-to-apples year-over-year comparison of Albert's PFF grades:

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

In 2008, Albert did well for a rookie being thrown into the fire on the left side. His very clean play helped him notch a solid plus-10 overall ranking. In his sophomore season, he was the second-most penalized left tackle in football, plummeting his overall ranking to minus-2.3.

2010 was a very strange year for Albert. He cleaned up the penalties a bit, had an awful year in pass protection and was outstanding in run blocking, a reversal of his trend from 2008 to 2009.

Then, in 2011, his pass protection dramatically improved, putting him well on the positive side of the overall ledger. His pass blocking stayed high, his penalty grades hovered around zero and his run-block grades fell.

Throughout this bumpy ride, Albert's become the kind of player many thought he'd be: a good, athletic pass protector, but not well-rounded or dominant.

Let's look at how those PFF grades rank compared to other left tackles with at least 12 starts. Keep in mind that only around 25 left tackles get 12 starts in any given season; his 25th-ranked penalty grade in 2013 made him the second-worst qualifying left tackle in football:

Branden Albert Career Pro Football Focus Grade Ranks
Category 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Overall 15th 19th 14th 12th 17th 15th
Pass Block 20th 13th 21st 4th 9th 7th
Run Block 19th 17th 7th 14th 23rd 19th
Penalty 3rd 24th 15th 21st 18th 25th
Sacks Allowed T-14th 15th T-23 13th T-2nd T-7th
Hits Allowed T-16th T-15th T-11th T-15th T-9th T-13th
Hurries Allowed T-25th T-9th 9th T-16th T-4th 3rd

http://www.profootballfocus.com

We see that overall, Albert's consistently been mediocre, never dropping into the 20s or cracking the top 10. His run blocking was seventh best in 2010, but mediocre before then and poor after. His pass blocking, though, has graded out in the top 10 for each of the last three seasons.

 

The Film

When watching Albert play in 2013, my observations matched up with Miller's evaluations and PFF's grades. He was capable—but not dominant—in pass protection, often giving up ground to powerful edge-rushers but rarely being beaten outright.

Sometimes, playing in front of scramble-ready quarterback Alex Smith bailed Albert out, but sometimes Smith got himself into hot water by not trusting the pocket.

In run blocking, Albert was not effective as a drive blocker. As Miller noted, Albert's more often used to seal the backside on run plays to the right, or on zone runs to the left, where he's adequate.

There's one thing Albert really excels at, though, and it's using his athleticism to get to the second level in run and screen blocking. It was on display in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys:

NFL Game Rewind

Albert's highlighted in yellow, and his responsibility is weak-side linebacker Bruce Carter, No. 54. The play is an end-around to the weak side, after faking a strong-side run to Jamaal Charles, so Albert's block on Carter is critical.

We see Albert sprint out to Carter and stop him cold at the point of contact, even slightly re-directing middle linebacker Sean Lee (No. 50) in the process:

NFL Game Rewind

Albert doesn't stop there; he knows if the play's successful it could be a big gain. He continues to run with Carter, sprinting nearly 20 yards down field and face-guarding Carter the whole way:

NFL Game Rewind

The play wasn't successful, but it wasn't Albert's fault.

NFL Game Rewind

As a contrast, here's what happens when the Chiefs tried to run directly behind Albert.

This is Week 5, against the Tennessee Titans.  Albert is working on Titans defensive end Ropati Pitoitua, No. 92:

NFL Game Rewind

At the point of attack, Pitoitua goes outside and gets low, then drives a shoulder up into Albert's chest. Albert is clearly too high and off-base here, trying to "catch" Pitoitua:

NFL Game Rewind

Pitoitua then gets his hands into Albert's chest and begins driving him back, back, back—into the run lane of tailback Jamaal Charles:

NFL Game Rewind

Charles tries to slow down but runs right into Albert's back and bounces off him, hard. Charles tries to recover but is quickly hit for a loss:

NFL Game Rewind

 

The Buyer?

In the 2012 offseason, the Chicago Bears were desperate to upgrade their pass protection. The guy they signed to do the job, Jermon Bushrod, is a comparable player to Albert—though Bushrod's run even more hot and cold than Albert.

Bushrod got a five-year deal worth about $7.2 million annually with $17 million guaranteed. Albert's one-year franchise-tag deal was for $9.828 million, per SI.com's Chris Burke. Albert's deal will likely come in between those two numbers.

One of those factors is how hot the market for him is—and like last season's trade market, there are a few suitors.

There were reports of the Miami Dolphins working on a trade for Albert last season, after their left tackle Jake Long (the top of Albert's draft class) left for the St. Louis Rams.

Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post reported that despite head coach Joe Philbin's desire for a proven veteran left tackle, former Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland killed the deal. Why? Ireland wanted to give young left tackle Jonathan Martin a chance to win the job.

Ouch. This is one of the reasons Jeff Ireland is the Dolphins' former general manager.

Abramson suggests the Dolphins will go hard after Albert if he hits the open market, and Albert will likely ask for $9 million per season—more than the $8.5 million per year for which Long signed with the Rams.

Albert knows it's a seller's market; pass-protecting left tackles are hard to come by. You either draft one in the first round, or pay a pretty penny.

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