N.F.L. Salaries: Believe in the Blind Side

I just recently got around to reading Michael Lewis‘s immensely entertaining book The Blind Side, even though it has been out for a few years now.

The book highlights how N.F.L. teams only slowly became aware of the immensely important role that offensive left tackles play in protecting the quarterback from blind-side hits. Although there is brief mention in the book that left tackle is the second highest-paid position after quarterback, it is a popular book and thus light on formal statistics.

Curious about the numbers, I put one of my loyal assistants Trevor Gallen on the problem, and here is what he reports back after crunching the numbers for every player in the starting lineup for the first game of the 2007-8 season:

1) As Michael Lewis argued, starting left tackles are indeed paid more on average than any other position on the field except for quarterbacks. The average starting quarterback makes about $5 million a year. The average starting left tackle gets $4 million. Defensive linemen and wide receivers also do pretty well.

2) There aren’t enough left-handed quarterbacks to do a rigorous analysis, but the blind-side theory is supported by the sparse data that exist on lefty quarterbacks. On those teams, right tackles tend to get paid much more than left tackles. Overall, the median blind-side tackles get paid over twice as much as the median non-blind-side tackles.

3) Punters and kickers make the least money — then safeties.

4) Perhaps the biggest surprise to me is how little running backs make. They are down toward the bottom of the list; I would guess that the wear and tear they face tends to shorten their careers, so they have fewer years over which to earn.

(Note: there are various ways to tally up N.F.L. salaries; Trevor used as the salary how much a player counts against the salary cap.)


Stan

There was a Sports Illustrated article on this a while back talking about the evolution of the left tackle position. The basic driving force behind GMs paying a premium for the LT position is the emergence of freakishly athletic defensive ends and linebackers (starting with Lawrence Taylor) coupled with the development of the West Coast offense, which prioritized the QB and the WRs getting into a quick rhythm which could be disrupted by a talented pass rusher.

In terms of system performers, the LT is arguably the most essential part of any pass-happy system, and they are therefore compensated as such.

Derek

@24 (Chris)

Not really. Perhaps, at the low levels that happens, but tackles generally get accustomed to playing a certain side, so that even if one is better than the other, it would do more harm than good. Swapping them might work at the high school level, but that's about it.

Derek

RE: Running Backs...

If you're looking at just starting RBs, a good number of them are rookies (Matt Forte, Darren McFadden) this season (or certainly in the low years of their contract). Several people have mentioned they are interchangeable, and that has resulted in a lot of former backups starting now.

Brian

I think the LT is very important and relatively scarce, however, the salary comparison is largely a fallacy.

Like many other positions, offensive tackles are largely 'swappable' in that they can go from left to right pretty easily. Most backups don't even have a defined side and are available to fill in on either side.

So on each NFL team, the left tackle is almost always the better of the two starting tackles. And he's very likely to make a lot more money than the lesser RT.

So when we compare LT to say, left cornerback or all wide receivers, the comparison is not fair. Those positions do not place the better player on a certain side, or they are not defined as a left/right position to begin with. If we compared the average salaries of LTs to the average salaries of all the *best* WRs on each team, we'd see very different results.

Wow, an entire book written based on a fallacy! No one tell Lewis. Talk about blind-sided!

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TW

28: To add to what you've said: it's a footwork thing, especially. The way you step and shift weight is a big adjustment, when you're talking about going up against the calibre of athletes that NFL DEs are.

33: "...(arguably, the blind-side tackle has more and varied responsibilities than the quarterback he protects)."

I'm a former OL, and... no way. I feel very confident saying that QB is definitely the most complicated position in the NFL, and I would be still quite confident that it's the most complicated position in all of major sport.

Gabe

Steven - I'd advise you to stay away from sports analysis. While you've got the same basic statistical skills as people who analyze sports for a living, you don't understand the games well enough to draw useful conclusions. I saw this the first time when you posted in 2005 about how the Oakland A's "Moneyball" didn't really focus on on-base percentage. But of course it did - in 1999. Not in 2005 when you looked at the issue.

Now here we have the same problem - Lewis' book discusses the rise in Left Tackle salaries in not inconsiderable depth. And he talks about how free agent LT salaries have risen. So what was the point of looking at all players, not just free agents?

Here's a two-year-old blog post about a far superior analysis of the same issue:

http://sabermetricresearch.blogspot.com/2006/12/salary-differences-for-nfl-positions.html

JM

Apparently, tackles also have the highest IQ: http://benfry.com/writing/archives/147

chris

If a lefty QB replaced an injured right-handed QB, the LT and RT swap sides. Best tackle plays blind side.

Bolk

rubheb, your foolishness is manifest. Neither loyalty nor being an assistant is anything to be spiteful towards. Rather, both can be viewed as good traits. Your displeasure with the phrase is a reflection of your own curdled soul, a fear of individuality causing a hypersensitivity toward it.

I think the clear next step in your analysis would be to look at the salaries of the defensive rushers on the "blind" side. If their salaries start going up, or if they have been going up relative to defensive rushers on the "not-blind" side, it would provide additional quantitative analysis to what is an evident evolution.

But I suppose you'd start having a game theoretic mixed equilibrium, as the "not-blind" side still may provide some returns. Perhaps not, but it provides food for thought.

rubheb

Don't call your RAs "your loyal assistants". This choice of language is a symptom of an unattractive match: a self-selection of individuals who would welcome the possibility of being called someone's loyal assistant, into a match with someone who wouldn't mind calling them this way. This is not flattering, neither to them nor to you.

John

Very interesting that kickers are lowest paid. Aren't they typically the highest scorers on a team? Plus they are the ones that typically are called on to kick a winning field goal in the final seconds or OT. That's a ton of pressure. It would be interesting to do a Moneyball-type analysis that compares points scored to salary.

Re: the book: At first, I was a bit disappointed that The Blind Side only talked stats at the start. I was expecting another Moneyball. However, the ensuing story was very good.

John Michl

http://thinkinganalytically.com

Scott Greenough

There's an interesting book out that debunks the whole Left Tackle as Important" theory from a statistician who works in the sports industry.

I think like many others we buy into these theories because they seem plausible and fit conventional wisdom but don't always work.

Here's the book: Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts

I haven't read it but I've heard about this stuff before so its at least germane to the conversation!

Chris McCracken

The qualities required of the left tackle are; height (to 'look over' the very tall defensive linemen he'll be up against); weight (to deliver solid blocking against said 280lb defensive end); ability to run backwards almost as quickly as the defensive end comes forward; footspeed and agility to stay between the defensive lineman and quarterback; and the balance to absorb the force of the defensive lineman while moving backwards.

Coupled with the less tangible quality of being in the right place at the right time (which comes with lots of field time) and the intelligence to know his responsibilities (arguably, the blind-side tackle has more and varied responsibilities than the quarterback he protects).

As has been said before - these people just aren't that common. Search Youtube for the videos of 200-230lb running backs with sub-4.5 40 yard times, though, and you'll see they are (as was mentioned above) pretty much interchangeable.

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architect

14 Scott...

Consistent usage of a word metaphorically does not constitute mis-use. Perhaps you also take issue with things that "weigh a ton" or "missed by a mile"? Please look up HYPERBOLE in your handy pocket dictionary.

While you're there, look up DECIMATE. It appears you also don't understand the original meaning. Hint: The "correct" math problem would show one extinguished Chicago QB for every nine surviving QBs.

Chris McCracken

34. I don't necessarily disagree with you the subject of complication. However, we may have different definitions of the what constitutes breadth of responsibility.

Not having played QB, I probably made an uneducated statement. Since QBs are paid more than the tackles, the NFL obviously agrees with you.

holycalamity

I'm really enjoying this discussion.

Several editors mentioned scarcity of players with the size and speed to play left tackle, but we shouldn't forget intelligence.

This isn't to say that other positions don't require a certain level of smarts (NFL playbooks are incredibly long and complex), but the "skill" positions generally require players to simply execute their set movements. Vision and anticipation help, but it's more about running a crisp route or hitting the right holes.

An offensive lineman, on the other hand, has to be able to react to stunts and blitz schemes designed to confuse the offense, and perform facing the opposition, but with his back to the action. He has to decide when to push, when to give, how to hold or play a dirty trick and get away with it.

That makes an NFL lineman harder to replace, and because their careers are longer, it's not surprising that their average pay is higher.).

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John Sahl

RE: salary calculation. It seems to me that using a players cap value for a given season makes the most sense.

This way the players pro-rated portion of his signing bonus is put into play & paper money (in gigantic inflated salaries in the last couple of years the player will likely never see) is not counted.

If the player DOES see the gigantic inflated salary, it would be counted against the cap (and hence included in the metric used here) It woudl also indicate that the player is extremely valued by the team.

John Sahl

@12 - why would draft position have any effect on the study of salaries? Left tackles are drafted high for precisely the same reason premium veteran left tackles are highly compensated.

@21 - I'm no statistician, but it would seem to make sense that in terms of protection, both sides are equally important (in spite of the conventional wisdom). The QB is looking down field, not toward either sideline (with the possible exception of a swing pass).

High salaries for left tackles don't necessarily mean that Blind Side protection IS more important, just that it is PERCEIVED as more important. Michael Strahan played left end apparently had no trouble getting to QB's. Granted one player doesn't make a trend, but it wouldn't be hard to take a peek at the top ten sack leaders from each of the past few years & see what side they play.

Jon Dale

The other issue this brings up is why sports writers spend so much time on skill position players when other people seem to make more of a difference. I've always wanted to see evaluation of linemen's performance - either grades like the coaches give or some predictive stat - # of pancakes, % of whiffs, tackles yielded - the way they publish stats on passers, receivers and runners. Does anyone know of a service/media that tracks line performance?

BrianCMS

I think its obvious that players who play either a crucial position, a difficult position, or a position in short supply should get paid more. Obviously the QB controls the entire pace of the game, but the support the defensive line gives to the QB is just as important. Also, it is not everyone who can play a position like left tackle, these guys need to be fast as well as huge.

Now, if a quarterback were to be injured and a left-hander were to replace a righty, would left-side tackles' salaries drop, or would right side's rise, or both? I think right tackle's salaries would rise because they now have the bargaining power and cutting another player's salary is counter productive.

But the concept of scarcity is felt by anyone who plays the fantasy sports that really are so popular. If you play it with a salary cap, you must decide how much money, relative to your total, is a player, or a position in itself, really worth. I'm sure positions like QB's and running backs (at least in fantasy leagues) must have the highest prices because they contribute most to the statistics in the game, safeties probably cost the least, since they really don't get that many tackles compared to everyone else.

Someone corect me if i'm wrong, I'm bigger on baseball than football.

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