Redefining The Right Tackle Position


In the hours before the 2013 NFL Draft word began to circulate that the Kansas City Chiefs would select Central Michigan’s left tackle Eric Fisher with the first pick in the draft. Once Fisher was selected it was believed to be just a matter of time before KC traded their current left tackle Branden Albert to the Miami Dolphins. After all, a team doesn’t need two left tackles. Albert was already on record as saying he didn’t want to switch positions and a team would be foolish to spend the first overall pick on a position of minimal importance like right tackle.

At least that’s what traditional NFL wisdom has said.

The reasoning for this is pretty simple. The long held belief is that you need an athletic pass protector at left tackle to protect the quarterback’s blind side but the right tackle doesn’t need to be as good of a pass protector and it is often more advantageous for him to be more of a run blocker. Therefore, sticking a great pass protecting left tackle over on the right side would be a waste of his abilities. It would be like putting a great running back at fullback where he spends most of his time lead blocking while his true talent goes wasted. A team would be much better served drafting a different position at first overall and picking up a less talented tackle later in the draft that would adequately fill the less important position of right tackle.

If that last paragraph is true for today’s NFL then the Kansas City Chiefs made a huge mistake in taking Eric Fisher first overall. Either that or they should have traded away Branden Albert at any cost. However, I think even the most “old school” of NFL fans have to admit that this traditional view of the right tackle position is probably at the very least in need of some updating.

This past week I read two fantastic pieces on this subject. The first is Examining Pressure: Are Left Tackles Overvalued? by Steve Palazzolo at Pro Football Focus. If you have ANY interest in this subject whatsoever you MUST stop reading this post right now and go read it. It is well worth the time.

The second was Evolution And The NFL from the blog NFL Philosophy. This blog is by a twitter user that goes by the handle @NFLosophy. He is a former NFL front office employee who posts on all things NFL. He’s a very insightful follow and I highly recommend looking him up on Twitter and definitely recommend reading the linked piece from his blog.

If anyone is concerned with the thought of the Chiefs playing Eric Fisher at right tackle this season or beyond go read those two pieces. I don’t know how you could read them and continue to have the same outdated beliefs about the right tackle position.

Here are a few highlights.

Both articles touch on the history of why we view the tackle positions the way we do. They both mention the game changing impact of Lawrence Taylor. His ability to impact the game by getting to the QB made every team want to find a player to do the same for them. These outside pass rushers lined up on the right side of the defense against the left tackle because they wanted the advantage of the QB not being able to see them coming, hence the “blind side”.

This became common NFL practice and to counteract it teams started looking for athletic pass blockers to play at LT to stop or at least contain these outside edge rushers. Thus was born the stereotyped roles of the tackle positions that some are still clinging to today. It doesn’t take a hard core football expert to watch football and see that QB pressure is no longer just coming from the QB’s blind side. Defensive coordinators are now sending blitzes from everywhere. Plus, as teams use less of the fullback position and split their TEs out like WRs more and more the right tackle no longer has the blocking “safe guards” that were often there 10 years ago. The right tackle is often “on an island” against a quality pass rusher just like the left tackle. The Pro Football Focus article does a great job of proving just how out of date those old tackle roles are in today’s NFL with statistical evidence.

According to their research, over the past five seasons 45.6% of their top rated pass rushers have predominantly rushed from the left side (meaning they line up against the right tackle). The number of quality pass rushers is creeping closer and closer to 50/50 on which side of the ball they line up on. In fact, last season 16 of the top 25 rated pass rushers were guys who lined up against the RT. Palazzolo notes:

"2012 saw a big jump in production from left side pass rushers and not coincidentally, we saw 16 of the Top 21 pass protectors residing at left tackle. This brings us to our original question: are the best pass rushers really moving to the left side or are the right tackles simply getting exposed? The answer, of course, is “yes.”"

Chiefs fans know all to well about RTs getting exposed having watched guys like Chris Terry and Barry Richardson get manhandled in the not too distant past.

However, the undervaluing of the right tackle position does not just stop there. Palazzolo goes on to illustrate that pressure coming from the QBs right is actually more disruptive. Over the past five seasons the PFF QB grades for QBs facing pressure from around the left tackle is -80.2 while the grade for QBs facing pressure from the right tackle is -130.6. This does actually make sense. If a QB sees the pressure coming he is more likely to force a throw to avoid the hit which will lead to more mistakes and a worse grade. What is surprising is that despite coming from the “blind side” pressure from the LT hasn’t lead to many more sacks. In the five year study 17.2% of the pressures coming from against the LT lead to sacks while 16.4% of those from against the RT did. So only 0.8% more pressures from the QBs blind side lead to sacks.

So since the difference in sacks allowed by pressures from the two sides is less drastic than the negative effect on the QBs passing shown from the grades listed above an argument can be made that in today’s NFL the right tackle position is having a greater negative effect on QB play than the left tackle position. This is how Palazzolo concludes his piece:

"The right tackle should no longer be viewed as the athletic inferior to the left tackle and teams should change their team-building strategy to make this happen. Today’s passing NFL makes it a necessity to have two competent pass protectors on the edge and when scouting players, if a tackle is deemed to not be good enough to play left tackle, well you’re better off just putting him at guard rather than exploiting him at right tackle. There’s no hiding — defensive coordinators will find him."

The piece by NFLosophy has come to the same conclusion and specifically addresses how some teams are now evolving:

"In the past, right tackles were considered more run blockers than pass blockers and were drafted as such. Defenses saw the weakness and are taking advantage of how slowly offenses are evolving to this tactic. Evolution is always playing catch up. However, this week we saw a couple of examples of teams realizing that the left tackle position has now become over emphasized. The best example is that the Jaguars decided that drafting Joeckel and playing him at right tackle was just as beneficial as playing him at left tackle. They realized that the gap between the importance of the left tackle and right tackle position isn’t as great as the general opinion would have us believe. They’re evolving faster than everyone else."

Now before any Chiefs fans get bent out of shape that the author gives kudos to the Jags for playing the #2 overall pick at RT instead of the Chiefs for using the #1 overall pick to do the same, keep in mind that KC was actively shopping Albert up until about a week ago. That implies that their drafting of Fisher wasn’t done with the sole purpose of playing him at RT like the Jags did with Joeckel. However, the fact that John Dorsey wasn’t willing to take less than top dollar in return for Albert shows that he does see enough benefit in having a great player at RT to stick to his guns. Someone with the outdated view of the RT position would have traded Albert away for pennies on the dollar so that he didn’t “waste” his top draft pick by playing him at the RT spot.

I don’t know if the Chiefs will sign Albert to a long term contract or not. I don’t know if Eric Fisher is still the long term answer at LT for this team or not. I do feel good about the situation now because I believe that if they don’t sign Albert to a long term deal it will be because they don’t think he’s worth the money he’s demanding not because they don’t value the RT position enough to play Fisher there. I just hope that if the Chiefs do sign Albert to a long term deal most KC fans will be smart enough not to flood blogs and message boards with comments like “Great, that means we wasted the #1 pick on a RT!”

That kind of thinking is obsolete in today’s NFL.

As always, thanks for reading and GO CHIEFS!!!!!!!!!!!!