Monday, February 27, 2012

Is Doug Free Being Paid Too Much To Play Right Tackle?

Hey, everybody. TC Fleming here. This week the Cowboys announced they're flip-flopping their tackles. Which is all well and good, but what about last year when Dallas agreed to pay $32 million over four years--ostensibly left tackle prices--to make Doug Free their Left Tackle of the Future? For that matter, what are left tackle prices? How do they differ from right tackle prices? And at what level would Free need to play to justify his salary at right tackle?

Starting with that second question, I put together a list of the ten highest-paid players at each offensive line position. Doing this, it jumps out pretty quickly how whacked out the rookie contracts were prior to the CBA. The two highest-paid right tackles in all of football are top-10 picks (Jason and Andre Smith) still on their rookie deals who failed to develop into left tackles. That sort of thing really has nothing to do with Doug Free. If we're going to find out if it's normal to have an $8 million right tackle, we should focus more on situations where teams had a better idea of what they were buying. Do teams setting out to buy (or re-sign) a right tackle demonstrate a willingness to pay $8 million a year or more to get that accomplished? So we're throwing out rookie contracts. With that done, let's check out this neat little table illustrating the difference in the average salaries of the 10 highest-paid players at each position:

Avg. Salary Years Total Money ∆ from LT 
Left Tackle$8.1 million6$46.2 million -
Left Guard$6.1 million6$34 million$2.0 million
Right Guard$5.4 million6$29.9 million$2.7 million 
Center$5.0 million5$26 million$3.1 million
Right Tackle $5.0 million4$22.2 million$3.1 million

The preference for left tackles is no surprise. The relative disregard for right tackles, though, is a little bit of a shock. For this exercise, the important thing is that it's true, not why it's true. To take a brief stab at why though, maybe teams are so desperate for capable left tackles that anyone with the slightest bit of tackle-playing ability gets slotted over there and the remaining talent isn't capable of commanding a decent salary? But whatever. The point is that right tackles are not paid very much. With this week's announcement, Doug Free in fact became the highest-paid right tackle in football.

Obviously, Free would need to be the highest-performing tackle to justify that salary, but by what margin? To try to get a handle on linemen performance, let's use the website They have people that look at the game film and give a numeric grade based on how well players execute their assignments. If you'd like to know more, it's on their site there. It's a handy way to make a comparison between performance and payment. I took all of the linemen graded in the 2011 season and matched them up with their salary. I added up both of those numbers and divided the two totals by each other to get an idea of what each million spent is paying for. For every million dollars spent on a player, how much higher a grade would one expect that player to have? The answer by position is in the graph below.

Grade Pts per Million Dollars 
Left Tackle9.13
Right Tackle 12.38
Left Guard14.40
Right Guard14.85

So if owners pay right tackles at a rate of about 12 grade points for every million dollars, Free would need to grade out around 59 to justify his $8 million salary. That is a humorously unreasonable expectation. 59 is not on the scale. The most productive lineman regardless of position last year graded out at a 34.6.

But, I think we're being a little harsh here. The 12 grade points per million dollars thing takes into account a good bit of getting lucky. There are a few late-round picks or undrafted free agents that step in to have competent seasons, and their decent performance and tiny salaries combine to throw the whole thing off. Then consider the fact that though it can pay off big, handing an unregarded player a starting job is not an advisable strategy. For every Carl Nicks who comes from nowhere to be an elite lineman, there are 10 Phil Costa's who come from nowhere only to show they were probably better off staying there. Having a track record and a demonstrated consistency are worth something. Sometimes one would like to pay a little extra to know what you're going to get. Looking at these numbers, I think owners are paying a little more than is reasonable for this presumed dependability, but that's a separate conversation. Going back to that list of 10 biggest free agent signings by position and doing the same salary-to-performance check, we get an idea of how much owners are willing to pay for established players:

Grade Pts per Million Dollars 
Left Guard5.69
Left Tackle5.71
Right Tackle 7.66
Right Guard7.70

Going by these numbers, we can start to at least squint and see a way for Free to be worth his money. Using the prices paid for established veteran right tackles, Free would need to grade out around a 21 in each of the remaining years of his contract. Seven offensive linemen graded out a 21 or higher, although only one was a tackle. For Free to grade out at that level would still be unprecedented, but not laughably impossible. 

There's one other thing to consider: As you can see from all these tables, guards--especially left guards--are treated as decidedly more valuable than right tackles. An established left guard being paid $8 million would only be expected to just grade out around a 6. 45 offensive linemen (7 left guards) graded out at 6 or above. It doesn't seem very hard at all for Free to reach those levels. Then again, he's never played guard. Given the difference in salary, left guard must be more difficult to play than right tackle. On the other hand, Free proved in 2010 that he was capable of the even-more-difficult position of left tackle. Plus we all remember Leonard Davis going from pedestrian left tackle to exceptional guard (though that was right guard and not left). Given the instability on the interior of the Cowboys' line, there's an opportunity there to shuffle things around to give Free a shot at the available position where he might be most valuable. Going just by the numbers here without any scouting indicating how his attributes would translate to the new position, I'd say a move to left guard is most assuredly the best shot for him to give $8 million or more in value each year.

It's worth mentioning that given Tyron Smith's superb grade last year (14, fourth among tackles) and reasonable salary under the new rookie wage scale (a little over $3 million annually), he is an excellent choice to play left tackle. If he repeats his performance, he will be one of the more cost-effective offensive linemen around.

The Tyron Smith aspect of this decision will probably work out well. Free, however, will have tremendous trouble justifying his contract if he stays at right tackle.

If you're interested in the numbers and everything I used to put all this together, they can be found on this spreadsheet:

1 comment:

greaso said...

does this take into account vick and teblow who are left handed and thus would value right tackle more? also, based on the Bears' and Cutler's sack rates, does it account for the Bears only playing 3 or 4 linemen on any given play? i mean, how else do you explain how quick they got to Cutler.