The offensive line is one of the most important units in football, but it's also one where knowledge is scarce. There aren't raw stats. Offensive linemen aren't accounted for in the fantasy world. Without turning on the tape, it's nearly impossible to explain how well an offensive lineman plays.
Because of that, fans use the tangible numbers they have available to judge an individual offensive lineman's success. This week, the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Jermey Parnell, a former right tackle with the Dallas Cowboys, to a five-year deal. The team announced the signing via Twitter:
The numbers might frustrate the fanbase. He's making a sum of $32 million over the lifetime of the contract. He's 28 and going to be 29 before the regular season starts. He's started seven games in his NFL career. He's also never come close to sniffing the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team.
On paper, the team gave a giant deal for the position to a backup player.
According to Spotrac, the contract value of Parnell's deal is the fourth-highest in the league at the right tackle position. Bryan Bulaga, largely considered the top tackle on the market slated to come off the books, re-signed with the Green Bay Packers for just $1.75 million more than Parnell spread over those five years, averaging to about a difference of $350,000 a season.
Bulaga's deal also included $5 million less guaranteed, meaning his deal was more flexible to move past if he should "bust" than Parnell's. As I mentioned before, though, you need to turn to the tape.
In 2014, Pro Football Focus named the Dallas Cowboys' unit the best offensive line in the league based on its film metrics. If there were a team where a top-end tackle could be buried in the depth chart, it would make more sense for it to be the Cowboys than anyone else.
For example, their first-round pick, Zack Martin, was a left tackle at Notre Dame, but he was forced into a guard role because of the team's strength at the bookends. As a rookie, he was named to the first-team All-Pro list, which, according to the Detroit Free Press, is the first time a rookie has done so on the offensive line since 1947.
To put it simply, Dallas was loaded on the line. Parnell's lack of starts can also be explained by his inexperience at the position.
At the University of Mississippi, he was a basketball player, but he played on the defensive side on the football team for a single season. From there, he bounced around from the New Orleans Saints to the Miami Dolphins and then back to the Saints in a two-year stretch as an undrafted defensive tackle, but eventually he found his way to Dallas, where he was converted to offensive tackle.
Sure, he's 28, but he was 26 when he made his first start on the offensive line at any truly competitive level.
In just three years of live action, Parnell was able to progress enough to the point where his film metrics on Pro Football Focus listed him as the 20th overall tackle in the league, the seventh right tackle on the list. In just a short span, he went from raw athlete to upper-end player. In 2014, he only allowed one quarterback hit and zero sacks.
This is why the Jacksonville Jaguars decided to take a swing at him. Last season, they drafted quarterback Blake Bortles out of Central Florida with the third overall selection. At left tackle they had former second overall selection Luke Joeckel, now heading into his third year, and right tackle reps were split by Austin Pasztor and Sam Young.
Pro Football Focus gave Parnell a grade of plus-8.7 for the season. Joeckel (minus-15.8), Pasztor (minus-7.8) and Young (minus-8.8) scored much lower than the former Cowboy.
We've seen what can happen to a young quarterback rattled by consistent pressure. David Carr, the first selection by the expansion Houston Texans, is the best example of this.
After taking on 76 sacks in his rookie season, Carr consistently "saw ghosts," and the potential of getting thrown down in the backfield dwelled over his performance, mentally limiting his progression as a passer. After five years in Houston, Carr, the former top quarterback in the 2002 NFL draft, was relegated to a backup role, bouncing around multiple teams before calling it quits.
You need to have a quarterback in this league, and the Jaguars seem to be aware of that. Parnell also will help in the run game, too, though. With Young and Pasztor on the right side, it was nearly impossible for the team to call successful power plays.
Last season, a large addition to their team was Toby Gerhart, a power runner, but because the offensive line didn't reflect well to his traits, he was limited to 326 yards on 101 carries for just two scores.
When you pop on Parnell's tape, it's hard not to come away impressed. He's a big, strong player who also is a fluid athlete. As far as tools are concerned, it's hard to ask for more than what he's got, especially on the right side of the line. He has heavy hands, mirrors well, doesn't get confused by stunts and recovers well with enough sand in his pants to re-anchor when he makes mistakes.
The play above, against his now divisional rival, the Indianapolis Colts, is a great example of his upside.
At the goal line, the Cowboys called a power play, once again, a weakness of the 2014 Jacksonville run game. Parnell wasn't just asked to pull, a rare assignment for a tackle, but he was asked to pull five gaps over, the left C-gap, between the tight end and the left tackle. He didn't just get the job done; he blew up his man in the hole, registering a pancake on a DeMarco Murray run.
It's no wonder why Murray led the NFL in rushing last season. His offensive line really may have been the best in a decade, and Parnell was far from a weak link coming off the bench.
In pass protection, that same violence shows up.
Again against the Colts, he's matched up against an edge-rusher, as the left side of the play is the strong side, with the tight end, for this rep. Going against a 4-3 defensive end, Parnell's initial punch needed to be quick, just because the two players started near each other pre-snap.
His heavy blow sent the edge player about three to four yards back, giving Parnell more space to work with and also giving quarterback Tony Romo more time to pass the ball. With this time, Romo was able to find his man in the end zone for a touchdown.
There's a direct correlation between what Parnell is able to do and offensive success. Be it with film metrics or just watching the tape, it's nearly impossible to miss. He's not perfect. Sometimes he gets high on double-teams, and sometimes his feet aren't great, but he can do anything you ask him to, and he'll come out a winner more times than not.
He's not just some backup undrafted free agent who tricked a team to give him a hefty, long contract. Unfortunately, the way most experience the sport leads to a lack of context in the trenches. While the numbers surrounding Parnell's deal don't rationalize his contract, his film, his career arch and the Jaguars' need for specific traits in the right tackle role do.
Parnell is going to be paid like a top-five right tackle because his progression suggests that he warrants that level of a contract, despite his age. In many ways, he should be looked at as someone Greg Robinson, the second overall pick by the St. Louis Rams last season, can develop into down the line.
Obviously the biggest difference between the two is that Robinson is only 22, but he's the same raw athlete Parnell was just a season or two ago. In the 2014 draft class, that led the Rams to select him before Bortles, who's being looked at as a potential franchise quarterback.
When backgrounds are thrown out and only on-field play is considered, there's a case that a player of Parnell's caliber is going to be more valuable in 2015 than anyone Jacksonville can select at the third overall slot in this coming draft. If a team has the immediate cap space and future flexibility to take on a contract to get a player of that talent level on its roster, it should every time.
As it currently stands, the Jaguars have over $28 million in cap room, according to the NFLPA, good for the fifth-highest in the league. With no big extensions on the horizon, they're in good shape to make the case for signing an outside free agent to such a large deal.
This move was made to turn around the fortune of their developing passer and their overall offense. That hopefully will turn around the franchise's fortune, vaulting the team into future playoff runs. In today's NFL, you're only as good as your offense. The Parnell move is the team proving it's willing to put premium value on that side of the ball. That should be lauded as good process by anyone's opinion.