‘On the Clock’ on buffalobills.com begins with just 50 days until the 2014 NFL draft as we explore league-wide trends with expert commentary from top-level decision makers. Stay close to buffalobills.com as ‘On the Clock’ continues as the draft draws closer.
Our first installment examines the precipitous increase in importance of the right tackle position in today's NFL.
SETTING THE SCENE
The distinction between what is a left tackle and what is a right tackle is shrinking.
A mainstay of NFL franchises in the 1970s and 80s, the offensive left tackle was viewed as a cornerstone, arguably the second-most important position on an offense after quarterback.
Jump ahead to the 2013 NFL Draft, when four offensive tackles came off the board in the first 12 picks. Eric Fisher went first overall, followed by Luke Joeckel (second), Lane Johnson (fourth) and D.J. Fluker soon followed with the 11th overall selection.All four lined up at right tackle to start their NFL careers.
A LOOK BACK
A dependable pass protector at left tackle became a priority in the mid-1970’s when the San Francisco 49ers “Gold Rush” was wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Cleveland Elam and one of the first third-down specialists, Tommy Hart, led a pass rushing force that had 61 sacks in 14 games (after reviewing game tape – sack not official statistic until 1982) in 1976.
In the mid-80’s a franchise left tackle became a necessity as Lawrence Taylor was single-handedly terrorizing signal callers to the tune of a career-high 20.5 sacks in 1986.
More traditional pro-style offenses of 10 and 15 years ago typically put their best pass protector on the left side of their formation to neutralize the right defensive end. That was where the opponent’s best pass rusher resided with the theory that he could have more success coming from a right-handed quarterback’s blind side.
At right tackle a more powerful, run blocking lineman was often situated there to drive a bigger, sturdier left defensive end off the ball. That left defensive end had to be a bigger, stronger end since that is the side where most NFL offenses ran the football.
Fast forward to 2014 and those positional stereotypes have vanished.
CHANGING THE GAME
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Left tackles were often seen as the cream of the pass protecting crop and were drafted that way, often times in round one. College prospects who projected to right tackle were often taken late in the second round at best and more often in rounds three and four, if they were deemed capable of starting sooner rather than later.
With the proliferation of the league’s passing game, and the commitment of defenses to stop it, the distinction between the skill set of a left tackle and a right tackle is fading away.
“I think what you’re seeing is with the changes in offense the right tackle position is not the traditional player that it used to be,” said Bills Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos. “It’s due to the spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks.”
The development of more and more complex defensive systems has also forced offenses to improve protection on both edges.
"There are some really good defensive coordinators in this league and if you have a right tackle that struggles in pass protection, teams are going to put their best pass rusher on the left side,” said Jaguars GM David Caldwell. “So you better have somebody who can protect the passer over there.”
“We are seeing defenses getting much more creative, moving guys around, trying to get mismatches wherever they can, overload wherever they can,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. “And sometimes they will put somebody over against a left tackle that they know can't win because they don't care. They figure, we will try to overwhelm the right side.
“So (the distinction) has gotten a lot closer, what you need in a left tackle and a right tackle. The right tackle better be able to pass protect.”
Some defenses have gone a step further assembling their roster with two or more quality pass rushers in the mold of the tandem that the Indianapolis Colts first put together in 2003 with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The Buffalo Bills are one example. Over the last two offseasons Buffalo acquired
In 2013 the Bills finished second in the league in sacks with 57, a team record. The Carolina Panthers led the league in sacks mainly due to their deployment of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson at the two end positions. The pair accounted for 26 of the team’s 60 sacks.
“A lot of teams have two (pass rushers),” San Diego GM Tom Telesco told Buffalobills.com. “So at that right tackle you’ve got to have pass protection. You can’t just have a run blocking power right tackle, he has to be able to move his feet and protect.”
That’s part of what prompted Telesco to take Fluker 11th overall in his first year as Chargers GM knowing he had King Dunlap as his starting left tackle.
“We needed tackles that could pass protect and the fact that he also brought a nasty edge to the game as a run blocker was a bonus for us,” he said of Fluker. “You need two tackles. You really need three, but you need two for sure. It’s an important position.”
"The game has evolved ... there are right tackles today that could’ve played on the left side 10 years ago."
Spread offenses have also contributed to the requirements for an improved athletic skill set from right tackles. Offenses are passing more than ever, so right tackles are kick sliding into pass sets more than ever. Those spread formations are also bringing faster and quicker players onto the field defensively for coverage assignments. Those faster, quicker players have additionally been utilized as pass rushing assets off the edge forcing offenses to line up athletic protectors on both flanks.
“Defenses are going to put people on players where they think they can win the one-on-one battles,” said Bills head coach Doug Marrone. “You are seeing more open formations than you have in the past with people spreading it out a bit, and it’s putting nickel on the field (defensively).
“You’re getting all types of players rushing off the edge, whether it’s a defensive end that can put his hand on the ground or 3-4 outside backers who are coming into those areas. They’re even sending nickel corners and safeties. So you are seeing a shift where the right tackle’s value has gone up quite a bit in the last couple of years as a result.”
SECURING THE EDGES
The natural counter argument is to provide the right tackle with help, perhaps with an in-line tight end or a back chipping on his way out of the backfield. However, with the advent of more and more spread formations such an approach would compromise a team’s ability to stretch the field horizontally.
“It’s difficult to help both tackles,” said Marrone. “You can do it, but once you start helping the offensive line you’re going to be taking something away from your passing game, whatever you might be doing.”
“You look at a team like the San Francisco 49ers, who have a very good left tackle and a very good right tackle and if you can take care of both bookends, it frees you up to do a lot offensively," said Caldwell.
The 49ers have 2007 first-round pick Joe Staley at left tackle and 2010 first-round pick Anthony Davis at right tackle. In that 2010 draft San Francisco traded up from pick 13 in a deal with Denver to make Davis the 11thoverall pick. He was plugged into right tackle and has remained there ever since.
In fact 23 of the last 46 offensive tackles taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft between 2007 and 2013 began their career at right tackle (50%). Thirteen of those 23 remain there heading into the 2014 season.
“I think there are certain guys who are special and everybody is going to say, ‘Put him on the left.’ I think you’ll still hear that,” said Monos. “But the game has evolved. You need athletic people on the edges now. There are right tackles today that could’ve played on the left side 10 years ago. Those top two picks from last year could both play left tackle.”
It appears that both Fisher and Joeckel will make that switch this fall, but draft classmates Johnson (fourth overall), Fluker (11th overall) and the Giants’ Justin Pugh (19th overall) are expected to remain on the right side.
ALWAYS IN DEMAND
So what’s happened to the prospects who used to be projected as NFL right tackles, but now can’t fill the athletic skill set required?
“I think it depends what you run,” said Telesco. “But if you’re a pass heavy offense, those heavy right tackles in college get moved inside to guard.”
Telesco believes the demand for athleticism on the offensive line will only continue to increase.
“Defenses are a lot more complex than they used to be. They rush from all different areas,” said the San Diego GM. “It’s not just the edges either. With stunts and games they come up the middle, so you’ve got to have athletes up front.”
Finding enough athletes for the line is difficult, which is why most teams are pleased when they’ve got their tackle position effectively manned with a pair of nimble starters. And even then a team is typically looking for a third as a reserve.
“In this league the tackle position is so important,” said Houston head coach Bill O’Brien. “I learned a long time ago when I came into this league that you really can never have enough tackles.”
And now more than ever the right is every bit as valuable as the left.