Imagine being an offensive coordinator and trying to figure out how to protect your quarterback from a defender like Von Miller. More often than not, Miller is going to attack the right side of the offensive line, taking advantage of the right tackle. This worked well for him in Super Bowl 50, when he earned the MVP nod after dominating Carolina Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers.
There was a time in the NFL when offenses could pretty much count on their opponent's best pass rusher consistently coming at the quarterback from his blind side. Teams responded by putting a premium on left tackles who could hold their own.
Those days have passed. In today's NFL, defensive coordinators play the matchup, putting their best rusher on a team's weakest blocker. And that means right tackles are increasingly called upon to go up against the toughest edge rushers in the league.
Teams still prioritize the left tackle position
Salaries show that, at present, left tackles are still valued more highly than right tackles. The annual salary cap hit for the top 10 tackles in the league for the 2016 season is just under $9.85 million. For right tackles based on the same criteria, it's just over $6.5 million per year.
Tyron Smith of the Dallas Cowboys is undoubtedly one of the best left tackles in the league. He has been to the Pro Bowl for three consecutive seasons and graded out as Pro Football Focus' second-best pass protector and No. 1 run blocker:
.@dallascowboys LT Tyron Smith earned the top run-blocking grade among all NFL OTs last season. pic.twitter.com/1LAWR1MNtP— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 13, 2016
He's also one of the top-paid left tackles in the league with an average cap hit of $12.2 million per year. Smith isn't doing it alone, though -- he's surrounded by talent in Dallas. The Cowboys' offensive line is widely regarded as the top unit in the NFL. They graded out No. 1 at PFF after allowing 33 sacks and just 67 quarterback hits all season and enter 2016 as ESPN's top-ranked OL.
Right tackle Doug Free, who was drafted by the Cowboys in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, carries an average cap hit of $5 million per season -- less than half of Smith's average annual cap number -- and he allowed just four sacks last season and had nine penalties. Smith allowed eight sacks and had eight penalties. Although Smith is the Cowboys' best offensive lineman, Free has more than held his own.
Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, whose average annual cap hit of $11.25 million is closer to that of a top left tackle, is paid so highly, in part, because the expectation is that he'll shift over to left tackle at some point in the near future. For now, though, Johnson is probably nearly as valuable to the Eagles as his counterpart on the left side, Jason Peters.
When right tackle Mitchell Schwartz hit free agency this offseason, there was speculation that he could earn close to left tackle money with a new team. Instead, Schwartz signed with the Kansas City Chiefs at an average salary of $6.6 million per year. Schwartz was one of the best right tackles last season, and the way he performed against Miller when the Browns faced the Broncos -- Schwartz allowed zero sacks to the eventual Super Bowl MVP -- is likely a big part of the reason Kansas City wanted to sign him.
Some right tackles around the league are making strong cases for more equitable compensation at both tackle positions. At this point, however, a discrepancy in the quality of a right tackle's play is more common around the league.
Equal play at both tackle positions still isn't the norm
Quarterbacks used to take most of their snaps under center, dropping back five or seven steps, and then releasing the ball, but the game's gotten a lot faster. A quarterback's progression has changed. They're taking more snaps out of the shotgun formation, giving them time and opportunity to survey the whole field and making blindside protection less of a priority than balanced protection on both sides.
Offenses are also trying to be more versatile when running the ball and need the same quality of run blocking on both sides of the line. In the passing game, offensive coordinators like to challenge secondaries by spreading receivers wide.
While there is a need for stronger play from right tackles due to the ways the game has changed, not all teams are currently getting that level of performance.
Looking at Pro Football Focus' top 101 players in the league, the most highly rated tackles were all protecting their respective quarterbacks' blind sides. Five left tackles were included, as were several guards and even a punter, but zero right tackles made the list.
Back in 2012, Pro Football Focus looked extensively at how quarterback performance changed under pressure from each side, and they found that quarterbacks generally perform worse when pressure comes from the right side. Intuitively, it would seem that quarterbacks would be better prepared to adjust when pressure isn't coming from their blind side, but the numbers don't support that.
Based on their 2012 data, pressure from the right side resulted in sacks slightly more often than pressure from the left side. Pressure from the right side ended in a sack 17.3 percent of the time, while pressure from the left culminated in sacks 15.5 percent of the time.
Part of the discrepancy between right tackle and left tackle performance can be attributed to the perceived need to have the stronger player protecting the quarterback's blind side. Smith came into the league as a right tackle, but the Cowboys saw his time there as more of an opportunity to develop. As soon as they thought he was ready to handle the pressure of protecting Tony Romo's left side, they moved him into the left tackle position.
On the other hand, Free played left tackle in Dallas until his play started to decline. Smith took over the left tackle role, and Free landed at right tackle. This isn't uncommon. If a player shows the traits teams associate with left tackles, they often get moved into that role, even though the right tackle position needs players with those traits.
Lions rookie Taylor Decker played both tackle spots in college. The first-round pick has been working on the left side in minicamp, allowing the Lions to move the Riley Reiff, an adequate if not great left tackle, to the right side.
Defenses do scheme to attack the weakness along the offensive line, pairing the defense's most dominant pass rusher against the right tackle. Players like Miller, Justin Houston and Khalil Mack rush from that side of the formation a majority of the time. Houston led the league in sacks in 2014 with 22, and Mack racked up 15 sacks last year in his second season with the Oakland Raiders.
Teams tend to place less talented players at right tackle -- and move more talented right tackles to the left side -- and defenses scheme to take advantage of that weakness. It all contributes to the collective performance deficit at the right tackle position across the NFL.
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When a right tackle is able to shut down Von Miller for an entire game, it stands out. That's exactly what Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert did in Week 15 of the 2015 season (GIF via Behind the Steel Curtain):
The Steelers won that Week 15 matchup against Denver -- a win that secured their spot in the playoffs.
Gilbert did it again in the Divisional round of the playoffs when the two teams met again. Although Pittsburgh lost in the rematch, it had little to do with Miller, unlike Denver's other postseason wins. Miller finished the 2015 season with 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. He added five more sacks and two forced fumbles in the postseason, but zero of those sacks or forced fumbles came against the Steelers, thanks to Gilbert.
And yet, Gilbert's average cap hit is $6 million per year -- much less than the average for left tackles.
There's enough data to suggest that quarterbacks rely equally on quality protection from both tackles, and there are many right tackles making strong cases for teams to reevaluate the way they value the position. What remains to be seen is whether teams will actually change the way they prioritize either tackle position as a result.