Imagine a parallel universe called Alt-NFL. In Alt-NFL, New York Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman uses the 2020 No. 4 draft pick on right tackle Tristan Wirfs. In 2021 he keeps Kevin Zeitler by extending him another year and lowering his 2021 cap hit. By himself, Wirfs doesn’t change the Giants’ fortunes much in 2020, so the Giants still have a 2021 draft slot in the low teens. Gettleman selects left tackle Rashawn Slater. Then in Round 6, guard Trey Smith is amazingly still available, and he pounces.
By the end of 2021 the Alt-Giants have begun to improve, and their only 2022 Round 1 draft pick is in the mid-to-late teens. That’s not enough to satisfy John Mara and Steve Tisch, who still hire Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll. With that first-round pick, Schoen selects center Tyler Linderbaum.
Slater. Smith. Linderbaum. Zeitler. Wirfs. A dream offensive line for the Alt-Giants. All players that BBV readers have fantasized about being Giants. Daniel Jones balls out in 2022 working in the pristine pockets created by this line under the creative play calling of Mike Kafka and Brian Daboll and shows that he is a franchise quarterback.
But the dream starts to become a nightmare in 2023. Jones’ agent points out that a QB who was suspended much of the 2022 season, and another QB whose team tried to put into writing that he has to do four hours of homework every week, still got $230 million contracts. Jones, clean as a whistle, a hard worker, and an ideal teammate, surely warrants more. Meanwhile, Zeitler is still playing at a high level and wants a big next contract, while Wirfs has finished Year 3 and Schoen feels pressure to give him that big second contract as well. In 2024, it’s Slater’s and Hill’s turns to do the same, and Linderbaum follows suit in 2025. The result? Forty-seven other players making the NFL minimum because there is no cap space left.
This is basically the point of a new study by Brad Spielberger and Judah Fortgang of Pro Football Focus. The study doesn’t mention the Giants, but it is relevant to Schoen’s attempt to rebuild the Giants’ offensive line. A basic idea underlying the study is that a single “weak link” in an NFL position group compromises the performance of the entire unit, but there are diminishing returns from upgrading to an elite OL from a good one.
The authors create a metric called “adjusted successful block %” to categorize the quality of pass protection of each NFL offensive lineman. The metric identifies the usual suspects as being the best offensive tackles and guards out there (e.g., Wirfs is No. 2 in the NFL among OTs at 96.7 percentage, while Zeitler is No. 14 among IOLs at 94.2 percent). The chart below shows the expected points added (EPA) for all offensive linemen between 2015-2021 as a function of their adjusted successful pass blocking percentage.
Unsurprisingly, poor pass blockers (left side of diagram) diminish their team’s prospects of scoring (negative EPA). Above 87.5 percent success, the average OL begins to make a positive contribution to his team, and above about 88 percent, all OLs make positive contributions.
But only up to a point. The curve flattens out at about 92.5 percent and higher, that is, beyond a certain level of quality, an elite offensive lineman doesn’t really contribute anything more to his team’s chance of scoring than a very good one. That’s because a good pass block is simply one that prevents the pass rusher from putting pressure on, or hitting, or sacking, the quarterback for a reasonable length of time, however the offensive lineman does it. An offensive tackle who usually gives ground but manages to hold off an edge for a few seconds by walking him around the QB until the pass is released is as effective as one who overpowers the edge and drives him to the ground, leaving no doubt. But it’s the latter offensive lineman that makes fans drool. It’s the OT that whiffs on his block and lets the pass rusher have a clear path to the QB that ruins plays. You may have seen a couple of those from the 2021 Giants.
If the NFL had no salary cap, the distinction wouldn’t matter. Accumulate the five best OLs you can, whatever the cost. If that were the case in Alt-NFL, Joe Schoen could keep the Slater-Hill-Linderbaum-Zeitler-Wirfs line together as long as Mara’s and Tisch’s money allowed it. But in the real NFL, having five elite offensive linemen on second contracts is unworkable.
The NFL doesn’t seem to realize the diminishing returns on OL quality at the high end yet, because it pays elite offensive linemen a much higher average-per-year (APY) salary on second contracts than good ones, according to Spielberger and Fortgang:
Note that the chart above shows the averages for 2015-2021. Right now, elite left tackles are being paid well north of $20 million according to Over The Cap, and right tackles are knocking on the door:
But the EPA vs. pass block success chart shows that good offensive lines are better value than elite offensive lines - similar results for less money.
Giants fans are thrilled to have two high first-round picks, Andrew Thomas and Evan Neal, manning the left tackle and right tackle positions in 2022. No one will be surprised if Neal becomes one of the league’s elite right tackles. Thomas at this point is good, though not yet elite, but it’s possible he may ascend to elite status this year if fully healthy.
The charts above suggest counter-intuitively that the best outcome for the Giants would be that both Thomas and Neal become good but neither one becomes elite. This would allow the Giants to retain both of them while avoiding a market-setting APY salary on a second contract for either one. The best use of the Giants’ cap space next year would be to upgrade any “weak links” in the interior, if they are unable to find three good ones from among Shane Lemieux, Joshua Ezeudu, Jon Feliciano, and Mark Glowinski (or any of the others on the roster). But only with a modest investment would that translate into better results on the field without creating future cap problems.
Paying the going rate for a franchise quarterback in 2023, whether it be a Daniel Jones that blossoms or a disgruntled quality veteran looking to change teams, would make it very difficult to sign both Thomas and Neal to second contracts if both turn out to be elite. One solution of course is to find a franchise QB in the 2023 draft and have him at a bargain salary for the next few years so you can pay stars at other positions. That is easier said than done. Just ask the 20 or so NFL teams that don’t have a franchise quarterback.