Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Price For A Left Tackle

Do you remember when the Ravens dumped obscene amounts of cash on Joe Flacco's head, largely because of a post-season run that was far above his usual level of play?  The thinking, at the time, seemed to be 'you can't win without a top QB, so you have to pay him'.  The possibility of drawing a line, above which the team would not go, as far as salary, was apparently unthinkable.  Well, they seem to be ready to take a similar, if slightly less insane, approach towards resigning Eugene Monroe, and I'm really not sure if this is going to turn out to be a much better decision (it isn't that I don't respect Flacco, but rather just my discomfort with the contract he received, and the long term consequences of it).

To start things off, let's take a look at the average yearly salaries of all NFL left tackles, who are starters, excluding players who are operating under rookie contracts.

Player Team  Salary (in millions)
Ryan Clady Broncos 10.5
Jason Peters Eagles 10.1
Joe Thomas Browns 10.06
Brandon Albert Chiefs 9.82
Jordan Gross Panthers 9.4
D'Brickashaw Ferguson Jets 9.2
Jake Long Rams 8.5
Duane Brown Texans 8.028
William Beatty Giants 7.5
Jermon Bushrod Bears 7.193
Michael Roos Titans 7.166
Donald Penn Buccaneers 6.95
Sam Baker Falcons 6.8
Andrew Whitworth Bengals 6.2
Joe Staley 49ers 4.686
Bryant McKinnie Dolphins 3.15


Starting with the average salary of $7.828 million dollars per year, we probably need to make a couple of corrections to get a better idea of what the likely starting point for negotiations will be.  First of all, Bryant McKinnie is operating under an 'acquired from the scrap heap' type of contract.  Joe Staley, on the other hand, has performed quite well, but is working under a contract extension he signed in 2009, before the start of his third NFL season, and is obviously playing for well below his market value.  If both of these contracts were removed from our calculation, the average salary for a veteran starting left tackle would jump to $8.386 million per year.  Of course, a number of these other players signed their contracts several years ago, so this also doesn't reflect the annual inflation that you tend to see with new contracts, where everybody expects to be paid more than the last guy who signed an extension, regardless of whether they are actually any better than anybody else at their position. 

There seems to be a lot of speculation amongst Ravens' fans, that Eugene Monroe will give the team a break on his salary demands, and settle for something in the $6.5 million range.  Most of this idle chatter seems to revolve around some assumed gratitude he would feel for being freed from the Jaguars' franchise.  Such ideas strike me as a bit goofy, but feel free to run with that if you wish to.  It's certainly possible that he could sign a reasonably priced contract, but he does have the Ravens somewhat over a barrel since they are probably a bit desperate right now to fill one of their tackle slots.  Of course, if he didn't choose to be so generous, the team could consider using the franchise tag on him, which for offensive linemen in 2014 is projected to be $11.126 million.  Considering that the Ravens are only expected to have about $13.9 million in cap space (with only 37 players under contract) that wouldn't appear to be a reasonable option.  So, in the end, I suspect the Ravens will end up offering him $7.5 - 8.5 million per year, which is basically in line with the average salary for his peers.

What about all of the other left tackles, who are currently playing under rookie contracts?  Well, their average yearly salary would be about $2.997 million per year, though a number of these contracts were drawn up before the newest CBA agreement with the Player's Association, which significantly reduced the cost of rookie contracts.  With the Ravens drafting at either the 16th or 17th slot in the 2014 Draft, an offensive lineman would probably cost them about $2.1 million per year, if selected in the first round, based on last years rookie contracts.

What Monroe probably deserves to be paid, is a very different question.  So, let's examine this in bite sized pieces of highly dubious analysis.

First of all, as far as I can tell, the average starting left tackle will give up about 0.4 sacks per game started.  An exceptional year for a left tackle would be a result of around 0.2 sacks per games started, while a result of 0.6 sack per game started might spell the end of your career as a starter.  For the 2013 season, the average result seemed to dip slightly lower, to around 0.420 sacks per game started (based on data from STATS.COM), and a median result of 0.403 sacks per game started.  So, 2013 was a fairly typical year, as far as these averages go.  My data for this only goes back about five years, so I might reevaluate all of this at a later time.

Of course, every player has their good years and their bad years.  To some extent, you have to make allowances for some of the player's surrounding talent, injuries, and the type of QB they are protecting.  Nonetheless, I will say that Eugene Monroe allowed precisely 0.433 sacks per game started in 2014, an incredibly average result.  If someone wants to point to issues that excuse this average result, that is fine.  There is a lot of room to debate these numbers.  My only concern here is that this has been a fairly good year by Monroe's standards, since he has typically averaged 0.479 sacks per game started over the prior 4 seasons, with only his 2012 result of 0.250 being a significant positive deviation from his career averages.  I also have to wonder if his 2013 results might actually be skewed in his favor, due to the failures of the other players on the line.  After all, you can only give up one sack on a given play, and Michael Oher and Gino Gradkowski seemed to be competing for that honor.  You don't need to be great, you just need to hold your block longer than the guys who are next to you, in order to look good by comparison.

Since at lot of my hunches about draft prospects are strongly based on how they did at the combine, I will say that these are the kinds of results we were sort of expecting for Monroe.  As I said a few months ago, in this post, his measurable data suggested that he was just an average to slightly above average prospect.  I'm not trying to suggest that he can't exceed my expectations, merely that he so far hasn't done much to do so.  So, to some extent, I would be concerned about him maintaining a rather flat trajectory when it comes to his potential for improvement.  After five years, I would have hoped to see steadier and more significant progress, if I was going to throw large amounts of money at him.

To some extent, I think the interest in resigning Monroe relates to three matters of bias and perception.  First, is the idea that he may have been the best offensive lineman for the Ravens this year, which is possibly true.  This still doesn't necessarily make him a great talent, as it seems just as plausible to me that the rest of the line was garbage.  Secondly, there is the sense of relief at having someone replace Bryant McKinnie, who appeared to be more interested in chasing strippers than in his blocking duties.  Who am I to judge Bryant for this?  They are called gentleman's clubs for a reason, so I have to assume that Bryant is a classy guy.  Thirdly, I think players like Monroe continue to get the benefit of the doubt because of their status as former 1st round picks.  However you look at these issues, is your own business.  Instead, let's just look at the impact that he had on different aspects of the offense this year.

In the passing game:

Weeks  Pass Att/Sacks         YPA         Pass Rat.
With McKinnie 1 to 5 14.35 6.76 70.07
With Monroe 6 to 17 12.14 6.17 74.64

As I mentioned a while back, Flacco has generally gotten sacked at a pretty steady rate throughout his career, generally around once every 13-17 pass attempts, which is a rather poor to average result.  Clearly, 2013 was a particularly rough year for Flacco, but the odd thing is he was actually getting sacked more frequently after the switch to Monroe in week 6.  His yards per pass attempt also fell slightly, as you would expect of someone under increased pressure to get rid of the ball quickly.  On the other hand, his passer rating did go up slightly.  Some people might point to the loss of guard Kelechi Osemele, who was lost after week 7, as a contributing factor but I can't really see much reason to justify that argument.  Digging into the question of whether Osemele really presents a strong reason to be optimistic about the future, would be opening a whole other can of worms, though I'm probably not as enthusiastic about his future as many Ravens' fans are.  However you look at this, it is hard to argue that there was a significant statistical improvement from week 6 to the end of the season.

In the running game:

      Yards          Att.         Avg.         TDs
Total 1096 366 2.994 6
With McKinnie 360 124 2.903 5
With Monroe 736 242 3.041 1

These numbers for the Ravens' running game are only the combined results of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce's rushing attempts, as I thought throwing in the odd scrambles by QB Tyrod Taylor, or whomever else, weren't too useful, and might add confusion.  While the average rushing attempt did go for a slightly longer gain (0.138 yards further, or 4.968 inches to make this look even more depressing) when Monroe took over, the end result really wasn't much different.  The additional fact that the Ravens only scored one rushing touchdown (excluding one Flacco rushing TD) in the last 11 games, should also be seen as a bit horrifying.

I wouldn't say that any of the Ravens' struggles were really Monroe's fault.  All I can say is that from the time he arrived, I haven't really seen any significant improvement, statistical or otherwise, from the team.  You would tend to think that a player who is poised to potentially get payed a significant amount of money would have had some measurable impact.  I realize that people could point to the rest of the o-line, as being the true culprits for the team's failures, but why would you pay one player while admitting that they will probably accomplish very little unless the other players are upgraded too?  Monroe may very well be a capable left tackle, but exceptional?  I'm not so sure about that.  I'm even less sure that a cap strapped team like the Ravens should be tying up significant amounts of their payroll on someone who appears the be at best decent or average, when they could probably get someone of comparable ability for between a quarter to a third of the cost in the draft, or through clever exploration of the bowels of free agency.  Of course, that depends on how confident you are in the Ravens' approach to drafting offensive linemen, a subject about which I have some additional concerns.

In the end, I think Monroe is possibly worth about $4-5 million/year, but this doesn't fit within the structure of contemporary NFL contracts, where at least one team can always be counted on to overspend based on their feelings of desperation.  An offer such as the one I have proposed would almost certainly be laughed at by Monroe's agent, and justifiably so.  I am certain that some team will pay Monroe significantly more than what I have suggested.  Still, that is where I would probably draw the line, and if he winds up somewhere else, I would content myself with the inevitable 3rd or 4th round compensatory pick that the team would likely receive for his loss.  Personally, I think a player should only be signed to a contract that they are likely to outperform, but this clearly isn't a popular view.  For now, we'll just have to wait and see how this all plays out.

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