Jake Matthews, the Atlanta Falcons’ left tackle, was once picked sixth overall and earns $14.5 million per season. Schraeder, Matthews’s teammate, went undrafted out of college and makes $6.3 million. He plays right tackle, the NFL’s most thankless position.
On the majority of his Sundays, Schraeder stares across the line of scrimmage at one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Left tackles get all the love. Schraeder and his brethren, more and more, draw the tougher assignment.
“I don’t know when they started doing that, but they’ve kind of made the switch,” Schraeder said. “Teams are getting smart, and they realize probably the best pass protector is on the left side. They’re putting their best defensive end coming off my side. In today’s NFL, it’s pretty important to have a good pass blocking right tackle.”
The evolution of the NFL can be tracked through the perceived importance of the offensive tackle position. As pass-heavy West Coast offenses conquered football, teams placed their best pass rusher over the left tackle, aligning him to rush the quarterback’s blind side, which was most likely to result in sacks and, truth be told, injurious hits to the quarterback. In response to seeing their franchise pillars under siege, offensive coaches began placing their best linemen at left tackle. The position gained importance until the best linemen were selected to play left tackle at early ages, front offices made left tackles the second highest-paid players in football, and Sandra Bullock won an Oscar.
For years, elite pass rushers and left tackles existed in brutal harmony. The contours of the sport have shifted enough to shake that balance, and that shift has caused ripple effects of its own.
The blind side is no longer the domain of the NFL’s most lethal pass rushers. This season, according to data accumulated by Pro Football Focus, Demarcus Lawrence, Cameron Jordan and J.J. Watt have lined up on the right side of the offensive line on more than 92 percent of their rushes. Former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller has rushed from the right 79 percent of the time, which is down from last season. Khalil Mack, the highest-paid defender in NFL history, has rushed from the quarterback’s front side 73 percent of the time.
The trend started a handful of years ago and has since magnified. The primary reason teams now line up their best pass rushers opposite the blind side is simple: It’s the next logical step in the evolution. If offenses are putting their best lineman on the left, they want to attack the lesser tackle on the right.
“People that aren’t as stringent with their defensive line and they’re open-minded, they’re going to try to get the best mismatch they can get,” said Los Angeles Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. “A lot of times that’s the right tackle over the left tackle. You’d hate to have a tie with your best pass rusher if the left tackle is really, really good. I think it’s smart by defensive coaches to move them around, try to get a good matchup.”
The changing positioning of top pass rushers is also a response to modern offense, which relies on short pass attempts unlikely to result in sacks. This season, quarterbacks have completed 64.8 percent of their passes, surpassing the previous all-time high, set in 2015, by a full 1.8 percent. Meanwhile, only three quarterbacks — frequent scramblers Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott and Josh Allen — have spent more than three seconds in the pocket on an average dropback, per Pro Football Focus.
A quarterback seeing a pass rusher coming is not detrimental for a defense against a quick slant or a bubble screen. It’s beneficial. If a pass rusher arrives at the quarterback’s blind side just after he releases a quick pass, then he had no effect on the play. But that same rusher could make an impact if a quarterback sees him coming.
“Defensive coordinators, their idea a lot of the time is timing,” Los Angeles Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “The fact that the [quarterback] is seeing you, and get him off his spot, where he can’t work downfield to throw. Now, they kind of understand, this may affect him sooner, because the balls get out faster now.”
Sacks are no longer the sole measure by which a pass rusher is judged — quarterback pressures, including hits and hurries, have proven to be critical in disrupting opposing passing games. Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, this season’s breakout star, has recorded a near-perfect passer rating of 140.3 when he hasn’t faced pressure this season. Against pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, his rating plummets to 64.9.
“Our main job is to make the quarterback feel comfortable back there,” said Lions right tackle Rick Wagner, the highest-paid pure right tackle in the NFL. “In the past, they wanted to rely on that guy protecting his blind side so he doesn’t have to worry about those hits. Now, you can’t have a guy in his face who’s going to get in his line of sight make him feel flustered.”
Even a blind-side hit after the release of a pass carries lesser currency today than in years past. New rules discourage defenders from hitting quarterbacks in a way that could injure them. Knocking a quarterback out of the game was an unsaid, but very real, factor in defenses hunting blind-side hits. Rules have diminished that incentive.
“In the past, that’s kind of what was known — you got your best pass protector at left tackle, and your road grader at right tackle,” said Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein, whom Pro Football Focus rates as the NFL’s second-best right tackle. “I think nowadays, guys got to be able to do everything.”
The defensive coordinators lining up the likes of Watt and Mack across the right side of the offensive line have done right tackles a favor: It has made them far more valuable. Left tackles are still the NFL’s second-highest paid players at $5.9 million on average, behind only quarterbacks, according to Spotrac. Defensive ends are next at $3.2 million — followed by right tackles, at $3 million.
Deryk Gilmore, the head of Day 1 Sports and Entertainment, represents Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. During negotiations with the Chiefs in 2016, Gilmore espoused the idea Schwartz should make $8 million per season.
“People looked at me like I was crazy,” Gilmore said.
Schwartz ended up signing a five-year contract worth nearly $7 million per year, bonuses included. For two years, Schwartz played in the same division as Mack, Miller and Joey Bosa, three of the NFL’s best pass rushers, all of whom line up predominantly against the right side of the offense.
Schwartz still developed a reputation as one of the best tackles in football. This season, Pro Football Focus rates Schwartz as the best pass-blocking right tackle in the NFL and grades him as the fifth-best right tackle overall.
Gilmore’s notion that Schwartz was worth $8 million a year now only seems crazy because it would be too small an asking price. The Cowboys re-signed La’el Collins, another Gilmore client, at $7.7 million per season. The Redskins gave Morgan Moses — whom Schraeder singled out as one of the NFL’s best pass-blockers — an $8 million-per-season deal. The Lions signed Wagner to a five-year, $47.5 million free agent deal before the 2017 season. Given the performance of the Chiefs’ offense and his place in it, Schwartz is an obvious candidate for a contract restructuring.
“The fallacy of the right tackle not being important is crazy,” Gilmore said. “And now, what do teams do? They try to stack their offensive lines.”
A stark disparity remains. The NFL’s 13 highest-paid tackles play on the left side. (Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson signed a five-year, $52 million contract in January 2016, but the sides negotiated the deal on the understanding Johnson would eventually replace Jason Peters at left tackle.) Even if right tackles draw tougher assignments than left tackles, they make less money.
“You see those left tackle contracts, they start off pretty high,” Schraeder said. “There is a huge difference in the pay. It’s a little outdated, I would say, with all the pass rushers they’re putting [against] the right side. I don’t know how soon that’s going to change.”
“In the past, the left side has gotten the traditional premier guy,” Wagner said. “It’s evening out over the years.”
Whitworth, one of the best tackles in the league, made the case that the hierarchy isn’t going to change. He believes left tackles, regardless of the talent level across from them, carry the heavier burden, one personnel changes across the ball cannot undo. “If you get beat as a left tackle or give up a little pressure,” Whitworth said, “it’s a complete blind hit.”
So, then, let it be known: If their less-heralded counterparts catch up to them, left tackles will not have seen it coming.
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