Over the off season a number of offensive lineman have been signed by new teams for a lot of money. Nate Solder is now a New York Giant with a $62m contract, $34m of it guaranteed. Solder was a solid tackle for the Patriots but I’m not sure you could class him as stellar. Likewise, Andrew Norwell has signed for the Jaguars and is now one of the richest O-linemen in the league. Couple that with a draft in 2017 where there wasn’t an offensive lineman taken until the 20th pick (and only two taken in the first round), it got me thinking about whether there was somewhat of a dearth of quality offensive lineman.
What started as a thought turned into looking at quite a bit of data. And it’s this point that I should point out – I’m no statistician! I’m pretty sure a proper statistician would do a much better job. But I have a different full time job and time is not a luxury I have much of! It’s also through doing this that I now fully agree that the “Moneyball” theory can’t be applied to the NFL – there are far too many variables at play to be able to lean on one or two sets of data. Correlations are fairly straight forward to find, but causation is another matter.
So, here goes. Please don’t mock me too much!
First thing I looked at is how much teams are investing in their offensive lines and how much that has changed over the last few years:
Whilst the spend (in terms of total $ amount) on offensive linemen has fluctuated a little it’s largely stayed static. What has changed is the percentage of total cap amount spent on the linemen. As the cap has increased, the equivalent amount used on offensive linemen has decreased.
The offensive line has a number of roles – one is to create holes for runners to get to but any statistic on this can be too influenced by the quality of runner (not to mention the defence that the O-Line is playing against). Another role is to protect the quarterback from getting sacked. Whilst this also has dependencies on other factors within the game it was something I wanted to look at (flawed I know and if you have any other suggestions I’d gladly look into them!). So how are teams doing on that front – the trend of the number of sacks achieved per season, up until last year has actually been decreasing:
If I left it there, you could come up with a very simplistic correlation that the less teams pay the offensive line unit the less sacks they give up. Doesn’t sound right, does it?
I broke down the data a little more and looked at how much was spent on each offensive line unit, each season and how many sacks that unit gave up in that season:
Source: http://www.spotrac.com & http://www.espn.com/
At this point I was running out of ideas but I was comfortable with the correlation of amount paid having somewhat of a link to the amount of sacks allowed. It’s far from perfect and like I’ve said, maybe someone with more time has delved a bit deeper and have more robust data. For the record – the team that has spent the most on the O-Line in a year is the 2017 Steelers who gave up 24 sacks. The team that has spent the least is the 2016 Panthers who gave up 36 sacks. The team that gave up the most sacks in this list – the 2014 Jaguars.
I next look at the flow of supply into the NFL – namely the amount of offensive linemen being picked via the draft. Whilst quality of O-linemen can be found throughout the draft, there are a good few occasions where quality tackles are taken high in the draft. Getting a franchise left tackle within the top ten is usually considered a good pick. With this in mind I split the draft into two sections to look at the amounts chosen in the first three rounds and the amount chosen in the second four rounds.
The amounts can’t be compared of course due to the second portion including one extra round. However, after an upwards trend through to 2014, in more recent years the amount of offensive linemen taken in the first three rounds of the draft is falling. But looking it as a whole the trend is now falling for both. On the basis that not every draft pick will work out, it seems that in a few years there could be an bigger strain on supply of offensive linemen – especially when you consider that this years crop also seems to be low on high end talent (only Quenton Nelson likely to be a top ten pick).
What conclusions have I come up with? Well, any amateur statistician is well out of their depth when they look at the NFL. I now have a much greater appreciation for the data geeks that teams employ. I do think that in the coming years we’ll see inflation on O-Line salaries increase exponentially against any future cap increases. The market forces of supply and demand and the drop of supply over the last three to four years will have a significant impact on how much O-Line players can demand in free agency.