As the 2014 NFL draft approaches, one of the bigger ongoing mysteries in football is trying to accurately peg down the value of an offensive lineman relative to the other positions.
Offensive linemen in particular are an interesting bunch of densely packed, intelligent, unnaturally strong athletes who get paid well to beat the living snot out of the man in front of them. So does their perceived value as the most talented bouncers in the country match their actual value relative to other positions on the field?
The entire purpose of an offensive lineman is to keep the enemies on their side of the ball while violently escorting their team across a 100-yard field. This act of both brutality and grace is undoubtedly valued. But what if we look at the impact of an offensive lineman from an individual perspective?
What is a GM supposed to do when tasked to prioritize his team-building strategy?
Let’s see if we can dive into this topic a bit more, if only to uncover a sliver of objective truth.
In order to play chess and win, you have to know what your most valuable pieces are. The football field is often compared to a chess board, with the players as the pieces. Each position obviously serves a specific purpose and brings a different value to the game.
But before going there, it would be great to get an opinion from someone who built a career on building Super Bowl-winning teams.
This is exactly what the former general manager of the Broncos, Ted Sundquist, has done.
Sundquist spent 16 years with the Broncos, 10 of which began in the college scouting department and the last six as their GM. He served as the College Scouting Director in 1997 and 1998 during the Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowls. In 2002, Pat Bowlen promoted him to general manager.
I was drawn to Ted Sundquist for his candor on various social media platforms and willingness to provide rare insight into the life of front-office execs.
In an interview with Mr. Sundquist over the phone—or at least my attempt at an interview, which preferably morphed into a wonderful philosophical back-and-forth about team-building—he and I spoke about offensive linemen and their value.
His tidbits of knowledge will appear throughout the article.
One way we can get a general understanding of how teams value positions is by looking at not only how high that position is drafted, but at how much these players are paid.
As we do this, we must also keep in mind that just because we determine a norm around NFL groupthink doesn’t mean we should garner any definitive conclusions about the empirical value of a position.
I think we can all agree that no position in football has as big of an impact on the game’s outcome as the quarterback. This certainly coincides with the supply-and-demand element within a salary cap as well.
According to spotrac.com, 12 of the top 15 average salaries in the NFL are reserved for quarterbacks.
But what about the top average salaries of the non-quarterbacks?
Below is a positional breakdown of the 32 highest-paid non-quarterbacks in the NFL:
|32 Highest Average Salaries Among Non-QBs by Position|
|Pos. Breakdown in Top 32||No.||Pos. Not in Top 32|
|Edge Rushers||10||Tight End|
|Interier Defensive Line||5||Non-Rush Outside Linebacker|
According to the value generated organically via supply and demand, offensive tackles finished tied for second on the list with the receivers, each having six representatives in the top 32.
What this suggests is something we already thought—teams prioritize toward protecting the "blind side" of their quarterback. Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus did a great piece dispelling the notion that left tackles are more valuable than right tackles. One valuable conclusion to take from that article is that the NFL is not as cutting-edge and adaptable as you might think.
Nonetheless, the tackle position still seems to fall relatively high on the team-building hierarchy. Pass-rushers apparently reign supreme. This capitalistic allocation of resources illustrates the eternal struggle between those who wish to destroy quarterbacks and those paid to protect them.
As for the rest of the offensive line, the guard position is clearly on the lowest end of the priority list, if not a complete afterthought. Not only are guards rarely drafted in the first round, they also struggle to get paid.
One of the more interesting things Mr. Sundquist shared came when I asked him how he felt about taking a center in the first round. He said, “I would absolutely draft a center in the first round.”
This was no big surprise, but his logic behind the philosophy got me thinking.
“Center is the most important offensive line position.” he continued. “The best units are generally anchored by a son-of-a-gun at center. Without a good center, you’re not going to have a good offensive line.”
After letting that little nugget rattle around in my head for a few hours, I decided to check on that hypothesis. Turns out, despite only one center showing up in the highest-paid bracket, Sundquist was surprisingly on point with his assertion.
Just to provide some background here, I created a system to rank every offensive line in the NFL over the last three years using a weighted combination of these resources and statistics:
- Footballoutsiders.com run blocking and pass blocking
- Pro Football Focus Signature stats (pass-blocking efficiency) and team grades for run and pass blocking (subscription required)
- Sacks allowed
- QB hits allowed
- Negative-play-to-big-play ratio. This is the total rushing plays for a loss of yards vs. total rushing plays of 10-plus yards (NFL.com).
- NFL.com's power percentage average (percentage of rushes on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or TD. Also includes rushes on 1st-and-goal and 2nd-and-goal from the opponent's 2-yard line or closer)
- Individual player rankings from PFF
Now let’s get back to centers.
In 2012, four of the top eight centers, as graded by PFF, happened to be members of the top 10 offensive line units. None of the top centers in 2012 were members of the bottom 10 units.
|Highest Graded Centers from 2013|
|Rank||Top 10 Centers '13||Team||Round Drafted|
|Pro Football Focus (Paid Site)|
Furthermore, in 2013, an astounding seven of the top 10 centers from that year happened to be members of the teams with the top 10 offensive lines. In that last two years, only the Raiders’ Steve Wisniewski ended up on a line that finished in the bottom 10.
Surprisingly, this would seem to suggest a team with an elite center is more likely to have a better unit up front than the team with an elite tackle. However, guards also reflected a strong correlation to line production—even more so than tackles.
This result could be the reflection of weighing production in the running game higher than I should.
At the very least, this should be explored a bit further by the guys writing those huge multi-million dollar contracts for their super-precious left tackles.
The Value of Drafting Offensive Linemen Early
Sundquist explains that when it comes to linemen, there’s a big drop-off in talent from the elite prospects found in the top portion of the first round and the middle-of-the-road guys.
"If you go for a highly regarded skill player, he either can or he can’t. Offensive linemen tend to be able to improve if they struggle early—as long that prospect possesses the elite measurables you look for in a tackle. This is why I laugh whenever I hear people say Eric Fisher is a busted pick already. Eric Fisher has everything you’re looking for in a LT."
This led me to wonder: Does this belief, coupled with the perceived safety of drafting an offensive lineman, contribute to them being drafted high in the first round?
“Absolutely.” he responded. “The risk of busting when drafting a skilled position is higher than an offensive lineman.”
But why exactly would an offensive lineman be less likely to bust? Well, this was his response to that:
"There’s not a whole lot to project into the next level from a scouting standpoint, unlike skilled positions, where you have to wonder about various offensive systems and how that player was used in it. Can he do things he wasn’t asked to do? There’s very little uncertainty when scouting an offensive lineman because everything you need him to do at the next level, you’ll either see it or you won’t."
This did make some sense, although it was certainly a perspective on the subject I’d never considered before. Skilled positions on offense do tend to be highly dependent on their supporting cast, from the coach and system down to the quarterback throwing them the ball.
When an offensive lineman is drafted, we often hear a pundit mention that the team who drafted him is set for the next 10-12 years at that position. According to Ty Schalter, this might not be as realistic as we thought.
Schalter’s graph legend: "For each position, the black dots at the top and bottom represent the high and low career length. The top black dot for the wide receiver group, for example, is Jerry Rice.
The orange boxes go from the lower quartile to the upper quartile of the group; half of all starters' career lengths land between the top and bottom of that box. The blue bands behind the yellow boxes represent the overall average for each position, which is written out in black numerals."
The most interesting thing to take away from this wonderful graph, which is articulated beautifully by Schalter himself, is this:
We tend to think of offensive linemen as having very long careers. You never hear draft analysts say ‘draft him and forget about his position for 10 years’ unless they're talking about an offensive lineman.
Yet offensive linemen are tied with defensive backs for the lowest lower quartile in the group. It seems odd, but 25 percent of offensive linemen good enough to start 80 games don't make it past their eighth season.
Using a sample size of the last two seasons, the top 15 offensive tackles of each year have an average age of 27 years old. This is the same peak age for the elite guards and tackles.
When combining those two seasons of elite offensive tackles, only seven of the 30 elite spots were occupied by tackles 30 years of age or older. Nearly half (14) of the 30 elite spots over two years are occupied by tackles between the ages of 26 and 29.
Apparently, this is the pinnacle of an offensive lineman’s career arch.
So if career longevity really isn’t a definitive perk of drafting an offensive lineman, does their value diminish?
|No. of Primary OL Contributors from Each Round|
|Last 2 Seasons||1st||2nd||3rd||4th||5th||6th||7th||UD|
|Top Rated O-Lines||28||20||11||19||7||10||5||20|
|Lowest Rated O-Lines||19||22||15||12||11||4||10||27|
This chart is tough to interpret. The 2012 season seemed to tell a story that would directly correlate with the suggested advantage of drafting offensive linemen high. Yet the very next year, that data seemed to get a whole lot murkier. The bottom-ranked offensive line units of 2013 had more first-, second- and third-round picks represented than the top-ranked ones. This phenomenon is tough to make sense of and leaves more questions than answers.
However, the chart does suggest that drafting offensive linemen high should help make a more dominant unit.
An interesting outlier among the top 10 offensive line units exists with the Green Bay Packers. They were the only unit in either the top or bottom in at least the past two years not to have a primary contributor drafted in the first three rounds. Three of their six primary contributors were drafted in the fourth round and two were undrafted.
When you think about it, offensive linemen make up nearly half of the offense on the field. With that many resources dedicated to blocking, it’s only natural for it to drive up the demand for the position. And where there’s a demand, there’s value.
What Impact Does a Single Offensive Lineman Have?
To better answer this question—let us ponder on this with a simple thought experiment:
- Can the addition of a single elite quarterback change the landscape of an entire offense? No doubt about it.
- Can adding a single elite running back redefine an offense's running game and significantly contribute to big plays? Absolutely.
- Put one of the best receivers or tight ends on your team and see what that does to your passing game. You don’t think Calvin Johnson has a huge impact on Detroit’s offense?
- Does the addition of an elite pass-rusher significantly transform the landscape of a team’s pass defense? Of course.
But what impact to the offense does adding an elite tackle have? That question is much more difficult to quantify. Does the actual production of the passing game go up? Is the running back suddenly able to get more yards per carry with the addition of a single elite offensive lineman? Does the quarterback and passing game get a major bump in production?
Maybe you’re thinking, "Well, that tackle might be able to keep that quarterback healthy."
|Rank||Left Tackle||PB Efficiency|
|Pro Football Focus|
But that just takes me to the pass-blocking-efficiency percentage (shown in graph). If the elite tackle is replacing an above-average one, the difference over the course of a year isn’t very noticeable. Besides, the quarterback still needs four other guys to block consistently in order to keep his jersey clean and his presence out of the training room.
How many plays, in terms of final outcome, would be nearly indistinguishable if that particular player had been replaced?
Now, I do understand there are noticeable characteristics in a player's stature, movements and display of strength, but the functional outcome for a particular assignment between elite blockers and an average one is more often than not interchangeable.
At best, there are only a handful of plays throughout the course of a game that would necessitate the upgrade from above average to elite.
According to the Pass Blocking Efficiency via PFF, which is a “weighted formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many snaps an offensive tackle is in pass protection,” the difference between the top-ranked tackle (Orlando Frank) and the 21st-ranked tackle (Erik Pears) is only two percent.
To put it differently, the 21st-ranked pass blocker in the NFL only gave up two more sacks and two more QB hits than the top-ranked pass protector in the NFL. Does it really matter that much to be “elite” on the offensive line?
Surely this has to at least make you question how much of an impact an elite performer on the offensive line can actually have. It seems reasonable to think that all you really need to strive for on the line is a collection of above-average blockers.
Oddly enough, that frame of mind seems to have been adopted by NFL teams with regard to the running back position.
For this reason, the actual impact an elite offensive lineman can have on a game is most often very limited, and it rarely extends beyond the impact of your average performer doing an adequate job. That small value change may not justify the big contracts or the high draft statuses unless they’re truly unique and exceptional.
If you still disagree, put on a few games and watch the front line. While you’re at it, choose a team that supposedly has an elite prospect and ask yourself: How much of an impact does this player have on each play?
In addition to everything already mentioned, a single offensive lineman playing poorly often slides under the radar, free from public scrutiny. Without many stats to truly measure their performance, it generally takes an atrocious offensive lineman to be identified as a bust—this does not happen often.
People are more likely to think a lineman is a good player and vote him to the Pro Bowl simply because they know he was drafted in the first round. Many linemen have managed long careers as overrated starters, simply because they were a highly touted draft pick coming out of college.
"I think without great individual players on the offensive line, you’re not going to dominate in the NFL. You can’t have a great unit without great individuals." Sundquist said.
Sundquist was responding to my inquiry whether the value of an offensive lineman is more about the unit as a whole rather than the individual. It does seem to have merit.
Four of the top 10 offensive lines did not have a top-15 tackle represented in their unit. On the other hand, only one (Ravens) of the 10 lowest-ranked offensive lines had a representative from the elite tackle group.
Interestingly enough, not a single team in 2013 had a top-15 guard from the bottom-ranked offensive lines.
Maybe the unit as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The Impact an Offensive Line Has on the Game
According to the offensive-line ranking system, only three of the top 10 offensive lines were playoff teams in 2011. In that same year, two of the 10 worst offensive lines in the league happened to play each other for the NFC Championship Game, where one of those teams (Giants) went on to become Super Bowl champions.
In fact, two of the last three Super Bowl winners (Giants, Seahawks) were teams with offensive lines ranked in the bottom 10 in the league.
Though that might sound pretty bad for anyone trying to make a case for the value of offensive linemen, it’s important to consider that in 2013, the Seahawks were the only team from the bottom 10 units to even make it to the postseason. Meanwhile, six of the top 10 offensive lines saw playoff action this past season.
The average rank in yards per game for the top 10 offensive lines was ninth in 2013, while the average rank for the bottom 10 teams was 24th. Those numbers are more or less unchanged if we plug in points per game instead of yards.
It's probably not wise to make any absolute conclusions regarding a topic as vast as this one, but until more information surfaces, these are my main takeaways:
Obviously, there is importance to offensive lineman, but it does seem that their real value comes as an entire unit rather than an individual. And since there are so many offensive linemen on the field at one time, you don’t want to be the team pulling together a unit of washed-up leftovers from the bottom of the pot.
Consuming your top draft picks and your wallets to create an elite offensive line is similar to taking too many vitamins and supplements; the body can only absorb so much and the rest is flushed right out of your system. Elite blocking has a limited ceiling in terms of its impact on the game. Eventually, you can end up wasting high draft picks and money if you dedicate too much effort toward an elite line.
Five above-average blockers is really all you ever need in order to establish a long-running, well-balanced dynasty. Oh, and don't disregard those big boys inside; they can often be the key to your line's success.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and writes for Bleacher Report.
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