If we needed more examples of why teams need to make offensive tackles a premium position when building their teams, week one of the NFL season should have cemented that thought. Example after example of game defining plays, drives and results were on full display of this fact all weekend long.
In a league and “sport” for that matter, that is based on quarterback play, one derivative should be constant- What is the best way we can keep OURS upright? Teams have always made decisions based on various elements they thought were important. So far in this young season, a lot of eyes have got to be on the makeup of your team’s offensive line. Some have to be judged as a work in progress, maybe a couple categorized as “a wash” but how these moves turn out will go a long way toward determining a team’s playoff chances. And because of the fact that injuries are GONNA happen, depth again will factor in.
I learned this from legendary coach Chuck Knox early in my career with the Seattle Seahawks. Do not dispose of an offensive lineman until you absolutely have to. Chuck would rather cut one late, than trade one early (if that makes sense) just to keep your options open. Sure, times have changed and we now have a salary cap to deal with. You can’t pay everyone, so tough decisions have to be made. I have massaged the CK statement for modern times when making decisions on how to put together and keep together offensive lines and believe in it more now than ever before.
Draft and pay TACKLES, sign a veteran offensive CENTER and fill in at GUARD. It’s not rocket science but you must evaluate correctly to execute this plan.
The LA Chargers did exactly that this past offseason by signing former Green Bay and ALL-PRO center Corey Linsley and drafting Northwestern LT Rashawn Slater in the first round of the 2020 college draft. They did this after learning the hard way and drafting guards while trying to get by at the tackle in recent years just doesn’t work. Charger fans hope it was a lesson learned and after week one of this year you would have to say the results are trending upward. The offensive line controlled the individual talent of the Washington Football Team on defense to produce an impressive win on the road in which QB Justin Herbert operated from a very clean pocket and surgically dissected a defense that, on paper, many thought would wreak havoc and dominate in the NFC. Slater was outstanding and Chase Young, the uber-talented DE from Washington was really not a factor in the game. Analytics back this thought up. Pro Football Reference- The Chargers were 3rd highest pressure rate in 2020, in week one this year- 4th best. It’s a start.
Seattle’s defensive front overwhelmed the Colts on the edges and stunted the growth of new Colt QB Carson Wentz and reminded us of old Eagle QB Carson Wentz by forcing him to be more concerned with the rush than finding receivers downfield. Using pro football reference again, in 2020 the Colts were 3rd best in pressure rates (protecting the QB), last week they were 7th worst in the whole NFL. The Colts O-line which has All-Pro OG Queton Nelson and highly paid CENTER, Ryan Kelly might be problematic if the tackle positions don’t play better. I love Nelson, just like everyone else but he’s a GUARD. This is another example of why tackles should get the premium dollars.
The 2-time defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs learned in last year’s Super Bowl that life is tough, even for the best player in the league, if you can’t keep him upright. They acted on what they saw and upgraded upfront by trading for Ravens tackle Orlando Brown. Baltimore, on the other hand chose to replace Brown with Alejandro Villanueva, who had been kicked to the curb by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens could rationalize this with the fact that they had already paid LT Ronnie Stanley so paying two tackles seemed unrealistic. Plugging in Villanueva for Brown is a total change in style and skill set. Brown is much more physical, can create push on impact and has strength to hold his ground vs power rushers while having the length to protect the edge in pass protection. Villanueva is a tall, no leverage player who has gotten by with smarts and feel but is all finesse. The results of this exercise in musical tackles is already becoming clear. KC takes a step forward-Baltimore looks like they took a step back.
There are examples of the value certain teams have put on the acquisition of tackles littered around the league. SF signed veteran LT Trent Williams to a six-year $134M deal to stay with them during the offseason. The New Orleans Saints recently signed RT Ryan Ramczyk for 5 years and $96M, who is a really good player but most talent evaluators see LT Terron Armstead as their best tackle period. It will be interesting to see how they handle Armstead in the near future. The last year of his current contract is 2022. With the Ravens taking an exaggerated step backward after moving one of their two starting tackles, will the Saints elect to pay both of theirs?
The Philadelphia Eagles just paid a relatively unknown (outside scouting departments around the league) talented left tackle 4 yrs/$64M with $40M guaranteed. Jordan Mailata was a 7th round draft choice in 2018 and has a limited body of work to be judged on. Some say, “how can they throw this kind of money at an unproven player?” My thought is- they can’t afford not to.
When putting your team together you have got to treat offensive tackles differently. And not only that, you must have a PLAN for the position that takes you beyond a current year, much like you do at Quarterback. Maybe you pay one, but draft the other (high) and he plays on a rookie contract until a time when the older one passes the baton? The Chiefs upgraded by just finding a better fit. The Saints just might be the first to pay 2 guys? I do know this after 35 years in the league, to say offensive tackle is not a skill position, is a mistake.
Sure, it’s going to come with a price but how teams divide up their salary cap pie has to include making offensive tackles more of a premium than ever before. But wait…hasn’t this always been the case? Some things never change, the stakes just get raised.