Line of demarcation
Differences are small between elite, average linemen
Posted: Wednesday March 26, 2008 11:20AM; Updated: Wednesday March 26, 2008 2:58PM
As a former offensive lineman, I am thrilled with the increased value the position has been given over the past couple of years. The multi-million dollar contracts once reserved for skill-position players have slowly made their way into the trenches, with players like Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson, Eric Steinbach and others setting a new bar for the importance placed on the interior linemen in the NFL. My enthusiasm, however, is tempered by a painful reality that I cannot escape:
I do not think they are worth that money.
As much as I love my big-bellied brethren and enjoy the increase in salary they have been given, I cannot honestly say I would pay a lineman these types of contracts. I just am not convinced the amount of cap room they eat up is equal to their ability to go a long way towards definitively determining the outcome of a game. I think there is a much greater likelihood that a cornerback or wide receiver, not to mention a quarterback or kicker, will ultimately have a greater impact on the final score.
Earlier this month, Faneca received a five-year, $40 million contract, including $21 million in guaranteed money, to play left guard for the Jets. Rick DeMulling, another left guard and former starter for the Colts and Lions who finished last season with the Redskins, is still a free agent drawing sparse interest. He is likely to sign a one-year deal for the veteran minimum, if he is even offered a contract by a team. What is the difference between Faneca and DeMulling, other than their bank accounts? About one or two plays a game.
One of the things I tell fans that often blows them away is how minute the differences are between average players and great players. Teams have clearly shown a willingness to pay a premium for that increased performance, but the question often becomes how much that performance increase is really worth to them.
I believe NFL teams put too much emphasis on a player's reputation and their desire to "upgrade" a certain position and not nearly enough time trying to quantify what that increased performance will provide in terms of value to their team. Football is not a purely statistical game -- there are intangible qualities a player can bring to a team in addition to his on-field production that need to be considered. That being said, there is room in the NFL for a more Moneyball-type quantitative analysis of what a given player's value will be to a franchise, especially at some of the positions like the line, where numbers are not a huge part of the equation.
In 2004, I started eight games and played most of two others at left guard for the Bills. In assessing my performance, Buffalo coaches credited me with giving up 1.5 sacks and five pressures during that time. For argument's sake, let's round up and prorate my performance over the course of a 16-game slate and assume I would have given up three sacks and 10 pressures over the course of the season. I was fairly solid in the running game, and typically there is not that much separation among lineman in the running game in terms of actual production. The greatest separation among offensive linemen is typically related to their work in the passing game.
As a matter of comparison, an elite player like Hutchinson may go through an entire season and only give up one sack and five pressures, assuming he has an outstanding season. In addition, let's factor into the equation the reality that Hutchinson may be able to use his talent to make one more block in the running game every other Sunday than I would have.
Strictly by the numbers, that means that an upper echelon player would give up two fewer sacks and five fewer pressures, and probably make one more block in the running game in eight games over the course of the season. That means the difference between one of the highest paid guards in the league like Hutchinson and a journeyman interior backup like me is approximately 15 plays over the course of the season, give or take a few.
Let's take similar numbers and project them on the more current example of Faneca and DeMulling. Offensive linemen are often given grades by their position coaches after games -- plusses for good plays, minuses for bad plays. A guy like Faneca might have four minuses a game out of 65 plays. DeMulling would likely have five or six.
Every NFL team would prefer to have Faneca as their starting left guard, that much is clear. What is significantly less clear is how much more a team should be willing to pay to have Faneca. How much is 10-15 plays over the course of the season worth?
To the Jets, the number is $21 million in guaranteed money.
It could be the difference. Or not.
It is up for debate how much of a difference those plays could make over the course of a season. DeMulling could give up a sack or pressure at a critical time and cost his team a game or two. Or, those plays could be inconsequential and not have any major impact on the outcome of a game the entire season. Could the Jets be paying a guy $8 million a year to not make a significant difference between wins and losses?
It is not difficult to quantify how many more productive plays a given player will give you over another player when evaluating their body of work over the years. It is difficult to attempt to gauge when those plays might take place and the impact they will have on a game or season. Theoretically they could have a decided influence on several games. My gut tells me they actually make the difference in very few.
Most teams currently evaluate all of the potential free agents and assign arbitrary grades to them based on film study. They subsequently identify positions of need and make attempts to fill that position with the best player possible at that position based on their previous evaluations. Market conditions determine the compensation that player commands as multiple suitors drive up the price necessary to get a deal done.
If personnel people around the league could somehow determine the probability that one of those 10-15 plays over the course of a season definitively determines the outcome of a game or two, they would have a much greater idea of what exactly they are paying for when they dole out the big free-agent dollars.
More than just numbers.
Even though I firmly believe that NFL teams could incorporate a more quantitative analysis in assessing players, football remains a team game in which there is an intrinsic value that must be placed on a player's intangibles, such as leadership, intelligence and work ethic. These qualities are vital to a team's success and cannot be overstated. It is much more ambiguous, however, what the value of those intangibles are.
There is no doubt in my mind that Faneca's durability and locker room reputation had a big impact on the Jets decision to pay him as well as they did. They are surely thrilled to place him between the first-round investments they made two years ago in Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson. His presence will hopefully add additional value by improving their performance as well.
Looking strictly at the on-field numbers does not necessarily lead one to the conclusion that this is money well spent. The Jets are hoping Faneca's intangibles create the real value proposition for the 2008 season and beyond.
So, no pressure, Alan. The Jets only have $40 million riding on it.
Ross Tucker has played for five teams in his seven-year NFL career. He has joined SI.com as a regular contributor on the NFL beat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.