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Mike  Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

Mike Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

In March, Miami signed deep threat extraordinaire Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh. Also this offseason: general manager Jeff Ireland allowed left tackle Jake Long to leave and sign with the Rams, and the Dolphins have filled his position by moving right tackle Jonathan Martin to the blind side.

Much has been made of Martin’s inability to handle that role. Leading up to the 2012 draft, much was made of how Martin only projected as a right tackle in the pros, even though (or perhaps because of what evaluators saw when) Martin played on the left side at Stanford with Andrew Luck. Miami played Martin on the right side of the line for the first eleven games of the season last year, but switched him to the blind side after Long suffered a season-ending injury. Pro Football Focus graded Martin as a terrible pass blocker in his rookie season, and he was even worse in the five starts he made at left tackle: In those games, he allowed an incredible 17 hurries, two hits, and two sacks.

I thought it might be interesting to run some tests on left tackles, building off a study that Jason Lisk ran on offensive linemen:

To do this, I looked at all offensive linemen since 1978 who made at least 1 pro bowl and started 80 or more games in their careers, and then found any season in which that player played in fewer than 10 games before age 34, after starting more than that amount the previous year at the same position. I then compared the team performance in things like points, yards per attempt, sack rate, and rushing yards per carry. As it turns out, we don’t have very many cases that allow us to look at this (19 players). If I had reliable game by game data for offensive linemen participation, I could broaden the study, but for now, I can’t tell which games a lineman missed, like I can with a quarterback or running back. My goal in setting this up the way I did was to find pretty good tackles and try to see if there were any differences the following year when they missed a large chunk of the season.

Our 19 offensive tackles averaged 15.1 games the year before the injury, and only 6.3 games played during the injury season. That’s a difference of 8.8 games played, or over half a season.

In his conclusion, Lisk noted that “The likely effect on a per game basis when playing versus when out with an injury was somewhere between 0.7 to 0.8 Net Yards per Attempt dropoff.” Well, what if we run the same study but (1) limit ourselves to left tackles1 and (2) look at the yards-per-reception average of the team’s leading receiver? There are only 12 situations to examine, a sample size far too small to really use, but here are the results:

Left TackleYr NTeamYr N StYr N+1 StReceiverYPR NYPGYPR N+1YPG N+1
Bryant McKinnie2011BAL160Anquan Boldin15.663.414.261.4
Orlando Pace2005STL168Torry Holt1395.112.874.3
Flozell Adams2004DAL166Keyshawn Johnson1461.311.852.4
Matt Light2004NWE163David Givens15.658.312.556.8
Wade Smith2003MIA162Chris Chambers1560.21359.9
Bob Whitfield2002ATL168Brian Finneran1552.414.230.7
Tony Boselli2000JAX163Jimmy Smith13.380.912.385.8
Willie Roaf2000NOR167Joe Horn14.383.815.279.1
Bruce Armstrong1991NWE168Irving Fryar14.963.414.452.7
Steve Wallace1988SFO161Jerry Rice20.481.618.192.7
Bruce Matthews1986HOU165Drew Hill17.169.520.282.4
Doug France1980RAM161Billy Waddy17.644.714.830.7

We see an average drop of 1.0 YPR, but even that doesn’t tell us much. If you use Torrey Smith instead of Boldin on the Ravens — a more appropriate comparison — the difference would be even smaller. With Bryant McKinnie around, Smith averaged 16.8 YPR in 2011; with Michael Oher protecting the blind side, Smith averaged 17.4 YPR last year. I recognize that this study has a lot of drawbacks, chief among them being the sample size. Perhaps when we have more time (can you believe we need it to be next offseason already?), we can investigate further. But at first blush, this doesn’t look significant, and this is when going from a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle to a backup. Say what you will about Martin, but he’s a high-pedigree player who the team handpicked as its starting left tackle.

But I’m not sure we need to study decades of football history to analyze this situation. Perhaps we just need to review Wallace’s career. In 2009, Mike Wallace led the NFL in yards per reception as a rookie, with Max Starks as his left tackle. Pro Football Focus ranked Starks as a good pass blocker that year (and RT Willie Colon as an excellent one), although neither has a reputation as an elite player. In 2010, Wallace had his first 1,000-yard season and averaged an absurd 21.0 yards per catch. Pittsburgh had Jonathan Scott and Starks take the majority of snaps at left tackle, and both graded out as negative players. In fact, PFF ranked every member of the Steelers offensive line as below-average in pass blocking that season other than Ramon Foster, who was graded as just barely above-average. In 2011, Starks was back protecting the blind side, but Wallace actually saw his receiving yards and yards per catch decline that year.

That’s just one example, and we know Ben Roethlisberger (who is getting a lot of play on the blog this week!) played a big part in keeping plays alive for Wallace. But after a rough start to training camp, Jonathan Martin is now getting praise from the South Florida beat writers. Martin doesn’t need to be a Pro Bowl left tackle for the Dolphins to get the most out of Wallace. We’ve seen Wallace in Pittsburgh, Smith in Baltimore, and Jordy Nelson (with Marshall Newhouse at LT in 2011) post big YPR years without great play at left tackle. If the former Steeler doesn’t have a big season in Miami this year, the blame likely falls on the shoulders of Wallace and Ryan Tannehill before you get to play the blame game with Martin.

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. I changed the cutoffs to 14 starts in Year N and fewer than 9 starts in Year N+1 []
  • Richie

    How easy would it be to include the stats for year N+2 (when, theoretically, the LT is back)? By my count, 10 of the 12 players above dropped in Y/C with the LT out. I’m sure part (most?) of that is just WR getting older. (Torry Holt’s Y/C pretty much dropped every year after his 2nd season.)

    • Chase Stuart

      Wouldn’t be too hard, but ultimately, the sample size is too small. I didn’t have the time to do an exhaustive study, but I should revisit the issue and then use N+2 numbers.

      Do you have any other ideas on how to measure this? Where do you stand on the Deep Threats Need a Good Left Tackle idea?

      • Richie

        Where do you stand on the Deep Threats Need a Good Left Tackle idea?

        It seems to be good conventional wisdom, but I haven’t thought about it more than that. I assume the theory is that a QB is only going to be able to take advantage of the deep threat if his LT his giving him an extra second or two for the WR to get downfield and the QB to find him.

        But this seems like one of those things that is very difficult to measure:
        – does the WR play well because the LT is good – or does the LT look good because they have a good WR?
        – How helpful is yards/reception? If Wallace catches an 8-yard pass and then runs for 40 more, I don’t think that was because the LT was good. But maybe yards/reception and YAC kind of averages out over time?
        – How often do teams really throw deep balls, anyway? 15% of the time? And then how many of those are going to the main deep threat? Seems like we’re really getting into tiny sample sizes.