Earlier in the week, I wrote a piece on the relative positional value of right and left tackles, inspired by a series LASkin had developed.
That exercise was interesting, establishing that both left and right tackles had experienced substantial salary growth over that timeframe, with right tackles having a slight edge in rate of growth, but left tackles still dominating in terms of raw dollars paid.
I thought that might be the end of that line of inquiry, but over the last day or so, I decided to keep pulling on that string a bit more. What I found revealed some serious surprises and, I think, may run counter to a lot of “conventional wisdom” on changes in positional importance over the last decade or so. Let’s see if you agree.
Quickly Revisiting Tackles
The details of the analysis on tackle salary growth can be found at the link above, but the key takeaways are the following:
In 2014, the top left tackles made 86% more than the top right tackles. By 2022, that had shrunk just a bit, to 78%.
The rate of increase of the mean salary of right tackles was slightly greater (79%) than that of left tackles (71%) from 2014 to 2022
So, while there has been a marginal, but measurable, increase in the salaries of top right tackles compared to left tackles over the course of the past decade, in raw numbers, left tackles are still dramatically better compensated - and thus “more valued” - than right tackles in the modern game.
Little did I realize at the time, this focused evaluation was actually looking at a positional pairing that is an enormous outlier in the context of the rest of the offensive positions on the field.
Evaluating the Rest of the Offensive Line
Taken by how dramatically tackle salaries had increased, I dove into the salary data for the other three offensive line positions: left guard, center, and right guard.
Turns out, across all three positions, the rate increases in top salaries over the past decade or so are dwarfed by the tackle rate of growth, which probably isn’t terribly surprising. What was interesting to me though, was that right guard salary growth was dramatically faster than either of the other two interior positions.
From 2014 to 2022, the top right guard salaries grew by an average of 40%, while left guard salaries grew by a relatively anemic 25%, and center salaries fell in between at 31% growth. Those trends are represented visually below.
So, looking at the offensive line as a whole, left side investment - in terms of rate of growth - grew by 48% over the past decade, while right side investment grew by 59%, but the difference is that teams have tended to invest more heavily in BOTH their right guard and right tackle and less in their left guard and left tackle than they did a decade ago. More on this in a bit.
How About the Rest of the Offense?
Seeing how dramatically the interior offensive line positions differed from the tackle rate of growth got me curious about the offensive skill positions. Surely some of those would compete with the tackles, right? Wrong.
Not even quarterback, who I assume most fans would have expected to top the list, came close to the tackle rate of growth. In fact, the growth in top QB salaries over the past decade didn’t even quite keep up with the growth rate of the salary cap in that timeframe. Shocked? I was.
Since 2014, the relative growth rate of the top salaries at the offensive skill positions is as follows, in ascending order: Running backs (13%), wide receivers (36%), tight ends (49%), and quarterbacks (54%).
Positional Growth Against Cap Growth
Looking at raw positional growth rates over the past decade is useful for comparing changes in positional importance over that timeframe, but to really get a sense of how team’s value different positions, you need to look at how they’re allocating resources based on the salary cap.
As I’m sure most readers know, the NFL’s salary cap almost always increases year over year - except for in the case of global pandemics - as a function of league revenues largely tied to media contracts. For the timeframe examined here, the salary cap increased from around $133M in 2014 to about $208M in 2022, a 56% increase.
Meanwhile, as outlined in this article, the raw rate of growth for each of the offensive positions varied widely over that timeframe, from 13% for running backs to 79% for right tackles.
Putting those changes in the context of cap inflation is even more dramatic, as can be seen below:
Relative to the rate of cap growth, the salary increases of the top earners at all of the offensive positions EXCEPT the tackle positions have decreased. As I said above, quarterback increases have essentially tracked cap growth, but positions like center, left guard, and - most notably - running back, have seen staggering decreases in their relative consumption of the cap. In the case of running backs, top earners have seen the equivalent of a 43% reduction - relative to the cap - since 2014. That seems to track pretty closely with the overall sense that good running backs are easily replaceable in the draft, that has come to dominate “conventional wisdom” over the past few years.
Starting down this path, I had no idea that I would hit on the two positions most valued - in terms of relative positional importance over the last decade - right out of the gate, but it appears that I did. Some of the other offensive positions fell in a way I would have expected, others surprised me.
I can already sense the next set of questions: What about the defense? I intend to do a closer examination there, but at the risk of spoiling that piece, I’ll say there doesn’t appear to be a defensive position that outstrips the rate of cap growth either.
I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts in the comments, as we discuss the implications this analysis might have for the upcoming period of free agency and the draft.
Did you find the results presented here surprising?