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Myths and facts about offensive tackles as the 2022 NFL season approaches

Are preconceived notions about OTs borne out by data?

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Giants first round draft pick Evan Neal
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For New York Giants fans, there was no greater source of intrigue leading up to the draft than the question of how Joe Schoen would address the right offensive tackle position. Which of the three most highly ranked OTs (Evan Neal, Ikem Ekwonu, Charles Cross) would he and head coach Brian Daboll prefer, and why? Which if any of them would be available at pick No. 5? Would the Giants wait until pick No. 7, or maybe even until Round 2, to draft an OT? What might we expect in 2022 from whichever OT the Giants did draft? Would the draftee slot in at right tackle, or would Andrew Thomas (who played significant snaps at RT in college) move over to RT?

There are many strong opinions out there in fandom about offensive linemen. Which of those opinions are supported by evidence, and what might they tell us about what the Giants might expect from their OL this year?

Do the Giants now have a good offensive line?

Ben Baldwin of The Athletic has opinions about every team’s pass protection prospects now that the draft is over:

Baldwin projects that the Giants will have the 24th-best pass protecting OL in the NFL. His prediction uses 2021 Pro Football Focus grades for the projected starters from Ourlads, except for rookies, for which he uses historical year 1 data for previously drafted offensive lineman in different positions in the draft. It tries to correct for players returning from injury this year. It produces a predicted expected points added (PEPA) for each OL, weighted by the importance of each position (T > G > C); that number is the basis for the ranking.

The chart also shows the percentile ranking of each position group. For the Giants, tackle is now a position of relative strength with Andrew Thomas and Evan Neal, though it is not yet projected by Baldwin to be among the best. Why? Because first-year offensive tackles often take time to adjust. Most everyone assumes that Neal will just walk onto the field and be a great Day 1 starter. After all, Tristan Wirfs did it, right? But Andrew Thomas did not (maybe for reasons beyond his control), and the performance of rookie offensive linemen as a group is pretty sobering:

Rookie OT pass protection grades, even for those taken very high in the draft, span almost the full range from awful to great (as do those for guard and center).

Guard is very much middle of the road, with projected (by Ourlads) starters Mark Glowinski (70.1 grade in 2021) slightly above average and Max Garcia slightly below average (56.3). Center is rated a bit below average with starter Jon Feliciano (56.7). Other players added to the line during the offseason and other draftees do not enter this calculation, even though the sense is that GM Joe Schoen has compiled better depth than the Giants had last year and maybe even found a starter at left guard in Joshua Ezeudu.

But those are projections, not facts. There are several myths surrounding offensive lines that we can evaluate from past performance. In what follows we focus on offensive tackles.

Are good pass blockers also good run blockers?

This issue was at the heart of the differing opinions among Giants fans about which offensive tackle would be best for the Giants. Ikem Ekwonu was seen as the best run blocker, but is on the steep part of the learning curve as a pass blocker. Charles Cross was deemed the best pass blocker of the three but was thought not to be a people-mover as a run blocker. Evan Neal was considered the most complete OT of the three. We’ll never know whether Schoen and colleagues preferred Neal to Ekwonu. But fans often fall in love with terrific run blockers (especially the more violent ones like Ekwonu and Trevor Penning) and forget to ask whether that OT is also a good pass blocker. Here are the pass block vs. run block PFF grades for every 2021 NFL OT who played at least 100 blocking snaps:

There is indeed some positive correlation between run blocking and pass protection prowess, but there is tremendous scatter. Run blocking does seem to be the most basic skill required of an OT in the NFL: There are no offensive tackles getting significant snaps with run block grades much under 40, but there are seven with pass block grades lower than that. (The player with the awful pass and run block grades in the lower left is none other than ex-Giant Bobby Hart.) Restricting the chart to tackles who played at least 500 snaps gives a similar result.

The bottom line is that while there are plenty of offensive tackles who both pass and run block well, quite a few of the best pass blockers are not good run blockers and vice-versa. The Giants are hoping they got the most versatile OT of the class in Neal, and that both run- and pass-blocking will be improved in 2022.

Does a team need a good OL to reach the playoffs?

Many Giants fans assume that until the offensive line is fixed, the Giants cannot be a playoff team. The Cincinnati Bengals have pretty much proven that not to be true. The Detroit Lions have shown that a team can be bad even with a great OL. But on average, do playoff teams have better offensive lines than non-playoff teams?

Here is the same chart, now filtered to include only OTs for the 14 teams in last season’s playoffs:

The cluster of points on the diagram now shifts up and to the right, and the correlation between run and pass blocking is stronger, so in some sense there is indeed better offensive tackle play on playoff teams than non-playoff teams. But there is still large scatter - there were plenty of mediocre OTs in the post-season last year. So if the OL is not completely fixed this year, don’t despair.

Are left tackles better than right tackles?

This is a subject of much disagreement among fans. Historically it was thought that teams placed their best OT on the left side, where the defense’s best edge defender was usually lined up, because that is the blind side of most quarterbacks. But these days, edge defenders move around from one side to the other, QBs will roll out to either side, and some feel that the distinction no longer matters. In particular, fans who lamented the Giants taking Andrew Thomas over Tristan Wirfs in 2020 seemed unconcerned that Wirfs played only right tackle in college and plays only right tackle for Tampa Bay.

The NFL does not agree with those fans. Money talks, and here’s what the NFL has to say. Below are the top 10 salaries paid to left tackles and right tackles (data from Over the Cap):

Highest paid OTs

Left Tackle Avg. Ann. Salary Right Tackle Avg. Ann. Salary
Left Tackle Avg. Ann. Salary Right Tackle Avg. Ann. Salary
Trent Williams $23.0M Ryan Ramczyk $19.2M
David Bakhtiari $23.0M Brian O'Neill $18.5M
Laremy Tunsil $22.0M Lane Johnson $18.0M
Ronnie Stanley $19.8M Braden Smith $17.5M
Jake Matthews $18.5M Taylor Moton $17.0M
Kolton Miller $18.0M Chukwuma Okorafor $9.8M
Cam Robinson $17.6M George Fant $9.2M
Garett Bolles $17.0M Rob Havenstein $8.1M
Orlando Brown $16.7M Jack Conklin $8.0M
Taylor Lewan $16.0M Ikem Ekwonu $7.9M

The top few left tackles make about $4M more per year than the top few right tackles. Left tackles 6-10 make about twice what their right tackle counterparts do. Thomas, the 21st highest paid LT in the NFL, makes about as much as the 10th highest paid RT, rookie Ikem Ekwonu (Evan Neal is just below Ekwonu on the salary chart). The NFL clearly believes that left tackle is the more difficult and more important position than right tackl.

Does the data bear that out? Here are the distributions of PFF pass block grades for the LTs and RTs who played at least 100 blocking snaps in 2021:

Distribution of OT pass block grades

Pass block grade # of LTs # of RTs
Pass block grade # of LTs # of RTs
20s 2 0
30s 2 3
40s 2 3
50s 7 12
60s 11 17
70s 16 15
80s 14 2

There are many more poor-to-mediocre right tackles than left tackles getting a lot of playing time in the NFL, and there are almost twice as many very good-to-excellent LTs than RTs. Obviously the NFL puts what it considers its best OTs on the left side as a general rule.

What does this mean for 2022? The Giants’ starting OL should be better than last year, when its PFF grades placed them near the bottom of the league. How much better depends a lot on whether Neal makes a seamless transition to the pros, as Wirfs did, or experiences rookie growing pains. The fact that RT seems to be an easier position than LT may help. Guard is probably improved, too. Glowinski is a clear upgrade from Will Hernandez at right guard, and it is reasonable to hope that the depth Schoen has accumulated will produce one capable starting left guard. Center seems to be the weakest point on the OL; time will tell whether Jon Feliciano can be a viable starter there over a full season.