The NFL salary cap can treat great general managers cruelly. Just look at this offseason’s free agent exodus from the Super Bowl-winning Broncos: John Elway’s success assembling a generational defense priced himself out in free agency, with contributors such as Malik Jackson’s value skyrocketing beyond his budget. And so the cap forces great general managers to always be looking for an edge to maximize their return on a dollar. Bill Belichick’s commitment to finding useful running backs at a tiny cost (Woodhead, Blount, Vereen, and now Dion Lewis) presents one example of exploiting a market inefficiency to deal with limited cap space: don’t shell out on a premium running back when you might get 90% of his production with a 5th round pick. What other positional considerations could help manage a tight salary cap?
Lefties make up about ten percent of the general population. And yet with notable southpaws Michael Vick and Tim Tebow far-removed from their days as NFL starters, no current NFL starting quarterback is left-handed. Theories abound to explain the lack of lefties: coaches at lower levels preferring to build a gameplan for righties, less talented receivers’ minor discomfort with a slightly different spin on the ball from left-handers, and the lure of baseball for big-armed southpaws – where being a lefty is an on-field advantage. And yet talent evaluators would never pass on drafting a quarterback prospect because he is a lefty – the small effect of different spin on the ball would be far down a list of priorities in evaluating a lefty prospect. And we know, of course, that lefties such as Mark Brunell, Mike Vick and Hall of Famer Steve Young have had their fair share of success in the NFL. Therefore, with no compelling reason why we won’t see additional southpaw NFL quarterbacks moving forward, could employing a left-handed quarterback present its own cost efficiency gains for an NFL team?
As Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side made famous, left tackle is one of the most vital positions in the NFL due to its integral role in protecting right-handed quarterbacks’ blind spots. Quarterback is of course the most important position, and as we know, the vast majority of quarterbacks are righties. Righties will naturally have a more difficult time evading a pass rush coming from the left side, behind the quarterback’s head, than from the right side, directly in front of the quarterback’s eyes. They may not even see the rush coming from the blind side at all. It is paramount to protect the highest-paid player on the field, and investing in a premium at left tackle protects the quarterback’s most vulnerable angle: the one he may not see coming. Michael Lewis had deemed left tackle the second-most important position in football. While edge rushers have likely surpassed left tackles in positional value, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com recently concluded that left tackle was still the third most important position – behind only quarterbacks and the pass rushers lined up opposite left tackle. Right tackles, on Brooks’ same list, ranked 13th.
Given so many right-handed passers in the NFL, the marketplace reflects the stronger demand for left tackles vis-à-vis their bookend on the right side. Per data compiled from Spotrac, the mean of the ten highest-paid left tackles’ per-year average salaries is $11.7 million. Right tackles? A mean among the top 10 of only 6.5 million – over 5 million dollars less per year. So, for instance, investing in the second-highest-paid right tackle, the elite Bryan Bulaga ($6,750,000), costs less than investing in just the seventeenth highest-paid left tackle (King Dunlap – $7,000,000). In analyzing practically guaranteed money amongst the top ten highest-paid at each tackle position, the story is no different: these premium left tackles average $29.2 million in practically guaranteed money on their contracts, whereas premium right tackles average only 11.7 million (just 40% as much guaranteed money).
When a team acquires the next Michael Vick or Steve Young – that is, a franchise lefty quarterback – the team’s protection incentives are flipped, with the right tackle becoming the quarterback’s blind side. So a team led by a lefty under center will want to invest more in a premium right tackle, unlike the rest of the league. Fortunately, they can do so cheaply and efficiently: the $5 million in savings per year could be used to plug a hole at another position or to lock up a key contributor with an extension. With guaranteed money far lower for right tackles, the signing risk is lower, freeing general managers to change their strategy quickly should the team move on to a different quarterback. And with defenses scheming edge rushers to attack more often from the right tackle’s side, it becomes even more critical to ensure adequate protection for our lefty’s blindside. We also wouldn’t necessarily expect left and right tackles to switch places on the line when a lefty takes the reins – it just wouldn’t be an efficient use of resources to be paying premium left tackles’ market rate to play on the right side. Additionally, most linemen are more efficient at playing one side of the line than the other.
As quarterback is clearly the most important position in football, it is naturally the differences among quarterback prospects’ on-field ability that will determine their draft position – no one is drafting a clearly inferior southpaw quarterback just to realize the team-building financial gains of pairing him with an artificially cheap elite right tackle. And yet, in the modern cap-driven NFL, cost savings of this magnitude are critical to gaining a competitive edge. We should thus expect GMs employing the next left-handed signal callers to invest in an elite right tackle and to skimp more at left tackle. Team-building in this fashion opens up millions to invest elsewhere – great news for savvy general managers constrained by a demanding cap.