Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

09 Mar 2007

The New Age of Millionaire Linemen

When Steve Hutchinson put his pen to a $49 million offer sheet in March of 2006, the agent of every elite offensive lineman in the NFL whose free agency status was imminent did a little happy dance. And as we have seen, the 2007 salary cap bump from $102 million to $109 million has teams spending Yankees-style on every position. But can a guard really be worth this much? Until recently, guard was a position seen as low-cost and fungible.

The attempt to answer that question leads us to the Football Outsiders stats for the offensive line: Adjusted Line Yards (which takes all running back carries and assigns o-line responsibilities based on yardage) and Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down and distance). In addition, we have the “blown blocks” numbers from the FO game-charting project. These are “whiffs” that led directly to quarterback sacks.

One caveat: Offensive line stats as they relate to individuals aren’t perfectly conclusive, because the efforts of one are related so closely to the efforts of many. We measure five directions – left end, left tackle, mid/guard, right tackle, and right end – but responsibility is more fluid than a one-on-one correspondence. (Left tackles should not be measured only by "left tackle" runs, etc.) The "blown blocks" numbers are still incomplete, as the game-charting data only includes Weeks 1-16 with about 20 missing game-halves.

Still, we can get a better insight into the value of each of the five linemen who have signed combined contracts in the last fiscal year worth almost a quarter of a billion dollars on their face.

Steve Hutchinson, Minnesota Vikings

Contract: Seven years, $49 million, $16 million guaranteed. The Vikings signed Hutchinson to a now-legendary “poison pill” offer sheet which would have made the entire contract guaranteed for the Seahawks if they had matched the offer after Seattle gave Hutchinson the transition tag instead of the franchise designation. This was the Shot Heard ‘Round the World for offensive linemen – between this and the increasing salary cap, things would never be the same.
Games Started (Position) 16 of 16 (16 LG, Minnesota Vikings)
Positional Adjusted Line Yards: Left Tackle, 4.85 (Rank: 6, League Average 4.37) Mid/Guard 4.33 (Rank: 19 League Average 4.32)
Blown Blocks: 3
Penalties: 0 (the second straight season Hutchinson hasn’t been penalized)
Comments: You’ll get arguments, but most would agree that the first big-money guard is still the best. Spent some time adjusting in Minnesota, but this is a technician with a brawler’s soul … the complete package. And if you want to know how good he really is, don’t look at the Minnesota line – check out at the Seattle line he left behind. Quite possibly the league’s best in 2005, the Seahawks’ front five dropped from sixth to 30th in Adjusted Line Yards, from ninth to 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and from second to 31st in Mid/Guard ALY.

Kris Dielman, San Diego Chargers

Contract: Six years, $39 million, $17 million guaranteed in the first two years alone. Dielman and his agent had been negotiating with Seattle, but left as much as $10 million on the table – of course, the guaranteed money offered would have been a lot closer.
Games Started (Position) 15 of 16 (15 LG, San Diego Chargers)
Positional Adjusted Line Yards: Left Tackle, 5.04 (Rank: 4, League Average 4.37) Mid/Guard 4.38 (Rank: 16, League Average 4.32)
Blown Blocks: 0
Penalties: 5 (2 False Start, 1 Clipping, 1 Chop Block, 1 Holding)
Comments: Perhaps the most coveted pure guard in free agency (at the Combine, all the talk about Dielman and Steinbach was about how the former would prove to be the better player over time), Dielman got to the altar with the Seahawks on Paul Allen’s private jet only to balk and fly coach back to sunny San Diego, and the best offensive line in the NFL. He’ll continue to shore up the Chargers’ left side with Marcus McNeill, who had such a great rookie season in 2006.

(For people who don't know the specifics on Adjusted Line Yards, one aspect of the stat is that it cuts off the extended yardage on long runs, when a running back is mostly gaining yardage with his own talents rather than his blocking. That explains how an offense with LaDainian Tomlinson could possibly rank 16th in anything rushing-related.)

Eric Steinbach, Cleveland Browns

Contract: Seven years, $49.5 million, $17 million guaranteed. Some reports have indicated that he’ll move to the right side (guard or tackle) for Cleveland, though nothing is set in stone for the versatile Steinbach.
Games Started (Position) 16 of 16 (14 LG, 1 LT, 1 C, Cincinnati Bengals)
Positional Adjusted Line Yards: Left End, 4.19 (Rank: 16, League Average 4.12) Left Tackle, 4.45 (Rank: 13, League Average 4.37) Mid/Guard 4.34 (Rank: 16, League Average 4.32)
Blown Blocks: 3
Penalties: 5 (5 False Start)
Comments: Interesting note: While the Bengals’ injury-depleted line finished around the league average at four of the five directions, the Right Tackle direction was the NFL’s best with an Adjusted Line Yards rating of 5.29, more than a yard over the league average. RG Bobbie Williams and RT Willie Anderson would be primarily responsible for that.

Derrick Dockery, Buffalo Bills

Contract: Seven years, $49 million, (sensing a trend here?), $18 million guaranteed.
Games Started (Position) 16 of 16 (16 LG, Washington Redskins)
Positional Adjusted Line Yards: Left Tackle, 4.95 (Rank: 5, League Average 4.37) Mid/Guard, 4.58 (Rank: 7, League Average 4.32)
Blown Blocks: 0
Penalties: 7 (6 False Start, 1 Offensive Holding)
Comments: The Redskins were below the league average in Adjusted Line Yards for Left End, Right Tackle and Right End – basically, each of the five directions we measure in which Dockery didn’t play a fairly major part. Think they’ll miss him?

Leonard Davis, Dallas Cowboys

Contract: Seven years, $49.6 million, $18.5 million guaranteed. Yeah, this one had a lot of people wondering. And the numbers below put Davis in the vicinity of the dreaded Alex Barron Statistical Cluster, which is the rough equivalent of the Mendoza Line.
Games Started (Position) 16 of 16 (16 LT, Arizona Cardinals)
Positional Adjusted Line Yards: Left End, 4.08 (Rank: 17, League Average 4.12) Left Tackle, 3.96 (Rank: 26, League Average 4.37)
Blown Blocks: 7
Penalties: 10 (8 False Starts, 2 Offensive Holding)
Comments: It’s quite simple, really. If Leonard Davis is worth $18 million guaranteed, especially since initial reports indicate that the Cowboys will move him to the right side, I’m the President of the Skip Bayless Fan Club. In an offseason of big-money signings (some more ridiculous than others), this is the goofiest. If Hutch’s deal was the equivalent of the attack on Fort Sumter, Davis’s signing was the rubber chicken upside the head.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 09 Mar 2007