Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling baseball book Moneyball, recently followed up with a book on innovation in football. The Blind Side follows the story of the left tackle, the player whose job of protecting the more vulnerable side of right-handed quarterbacks has become increasing important in the NFL ‘arms race’ of the pass rush vs. passing offense.

The entirety of Lewis’ premise is based on the relative pay of LTs compared to other positions. Lewis cites the fact that LT has become the second highest paid position, behind only the all-important QB. Unfortunately, the comparison of LT salaries with those of other positions is a false comparison, and a fairer comparison reveals a different story.

I was intrigued by Phil Birnbaum’s response to a write-up of Blind Side at the Freakonomics blog. Phil questioned the justifications for the extremely high salaries for LTs. And although I believe there are sound economic reasons based on the scarcity of qualified players and the contribution of the position, my main concern questioned the premise that LT salaries are truly any higher than other positions.

Like many other positions, offensive tackles are largely ’swappable’ in that they can go from left to right pretty easily. Most backups don’t even have a defined side and are available to fill in on either side to spell a starter or replace him in case of injury.

Due to the 'blind side' consideration, the LT is almost always the better of the two starting tackles on each NFL team. And he’s very likely to make a lot more money than the lesser player who is assigned RT.
Starting LTs are basically a group of the #1 offensive tackles from each of the 32 teams.

So when we compare average salaries of LTs to those of say, left corner back or all starting wide receivers, the comparison is not fair. Those positions do not place the better player on a certain side, or they are not defined as left/right positions to begin with. And if a player does always line up on one side, it’s not always the same side for every team.

If we compared the average salaries of LTs to the average salaries of all the best WRs from each team, we might expect to see drastically different results.

A much fairer comparison of position salaries is to compare the average salary of the 32 top paid offensive tackles, whether left or right, with the top 32 salaries of players at WR, CB, or various other positions. So that’s what I did.

I looked at the average of the top 32 salaries of 2007 at OT, QB, WR, CB, and RB. Because a player’s salary is a convoluted mix of regular salary, signing bonuses and other bonuses, I favor salary cap charges as the best measure of salary. A cap charge is basically a player’s base salary plus an amortized amount of bonus salary. I think it’s the best measure because it most realistically reflects the value of the player to the team. Total salary and base salary, the only other plausible measures, can be highly irregular based on the particular timing of bonuses. However, I’ll include all three types of salary below the graph, and you can judge for yourself.

The graph and table below list the salaries in $millions for the 32 highest paid players at various positions.

Average Salary of Top 32 Players by Position ($ million)

Base Salary 2.9 2.3 3.5 3.3 1.8
Total Salary 5.8 4.9 5.7 5.7 4.9
Cap Charge 5.6 4.5 5.2 5.4 3.8

The 32 highest paid offensive tackles, whether left or right, rank only 4th out of 5 in all three measures of salary. I haven’t looked at other positions yet, so there may be others that are higher paid than OT. Further, only 33 of the 100 top paid offensive linemen were tackles, left or right.

While I agree LT is a critically important position and should be highly paid, the comparison of salaries against other left/right positions, or non-“sided” positions is severely biased. A fairer comparison reveals that the top players at other positions are paid even higher salaries.

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5 Responses to “Blindsided?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    "So when we compare average salaries of LTs to those of say, left corner back or all starting wide receivers, the comparison is not fair. Those positions do not place the better player on a certain side, or they are not defined as left/right positions to begin with."

    A team's best corner will generally line up on the left side as the majority of a righthanded QB's throws will be directed to his right. That said I agree with your breakdown of player salaries.

  2. Michael says:

    Have you read K.C. Joyner's "Blindsided"? In there, he basically takes Lewis' assertions that the left tackle is of primo importance and, while not negating the fact the the position is in fact extremely important, shows that all four of the other offensive line positions are just as important, primarily due to the advent of the zone-blitz and its ability to essentially "single-out" any weak link on the offensive line.

  3. Brian Burke says:

    You're right about most CBs. And it's true there are slightly more pass attempts to the right than to the left, especially deep attempts. But some #1 CBs will float and always match up with a #1 WR, wherever he is.

    No I haven't read Blindsided. But I did come across it doing background for this article. Since I don't pay for the ESPN Insider thing, I'm not that familiar with him. But I do have a copy of last year's Scientific Football. It's interesting, but mostly just reams and reams of Excel printouts. I wish it were electronic so I could do some crunching with his data. Unfortunately, most of it is really small sample-size stuff, like 'CB passes defended on 3rd downs for curl routs in the 2nd quarter.' My (vague) impression is that Joyner doesn't tend to overreach with his conclusions, which I like.

    I guess that's a good way to sum up what's going on. The LT is really important, just not that much more important than most other positions.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Good analysis and goodpoint about averages of positions.

    The same thing could likely be seen if you just took all 22 starting positions (ignoring special teams), noting that there is a #1 wr, and a #2 wr (likewise a 1 and 2 cb, 1 and 2 G, etc.) I think that is a pretty common way to describe the positions.


  5. Anonymous says:

    An interesting area to look at could be the relative difference between the number 1 and 2 tackle on each team, and compare that with other position...could show the premium a team puts on protecting it's blindside

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