On the heels of Ryan Clady's new five-year contract, I was thinking about the importance of various players and positions with regard to the changes that are evident in the league. In the pass-centric game that is the modern NFL, there has been an increasing and well-warranted examination of the importance of the left offensive tackle position.
Questions remain as to how much more important it is or isn’t than any other position on the front line. Is locking up Clady at a partly guaranteed cost of $52.5 million dollars over five years wasting too much capital on a single LOT?
One of the things that's important to remember here is that Clady is one of the top five players at his position in the league. You can only afford to have a certain number of those on your team, assuming you're lucky enough to find them at all.
But Clady's contract also emphasizes something that reflects the state of the importance of passing in the NFL. I often mention the importance of the run game, simply because I find it often overlooked. But the passing game requires some specific players, and if you have elite players in those positions, your chances for a successful season go up along with your costs.
Winning isn’t usually cheap.
When you're considering the importance of various positions in the modern passing league, I’d list them as follows:
First, the quarterback. Every franchise either has one or is looking for one. Only a few of them in the league are truly elite, so if you don't have one of them, you have a long uphill battle to get to a Super Bowl. Happily, Peyton Manning is one of those elite players, so the Broncos have the biggest piece of the puzzle. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos had the most yards per attempt in play action passing in 2012.
Next in importance (although it’s arguable), many GMs would say that you have an elite pass rusher. You will only rarely see a player like Von Miller, who is a brilliant pass rusher, but who also has strong skills against the run, and is becoming very effective in pass coverage. That's another player that you're going to have to pay as if he is, in fact, one of the best in the league.
For the moment, he’s thankfully still on a rookie contract, although today's news will hurt both Von and the squad. Again, every team either has a pass rusher of this quality, or is looking for one. Denver has Miller, but also has assembled a host of other pass rushing defenders. That’s an unusual advantage.
Continuing on the list, I’d say that next you need the pass protectors. As we've talked about, the left offensive tackle is only one of the important positions on the line. The center, for example, is always the first player to touch the ball, yet he never really seems to get the level of admiration that many of them are due.
I keep wondering when centers are going to be paid like tackles. After all, you're hiring the center for their intellect and ability to adapt as much as their physical skills. The combination of the two, to me, seems as if it should be worth a bit more than it generally is. The reasoning behind the lag is that there are more candidates for center available, and the body type for tackle is less common. I stil wonder, when I look at any offensive line, what kind of value they place on the center.
When you consider that players like Von Miller often attack from the offensive right side, it's quickly becoming true that the right tackle is going to be facing elite pass rushers nearly as much as the left tackle. It remains true, however, that many teams play their best pass rusher off of the offensive left edge.
That means that your left tackle is often on an island, dealing with that player one-on-one. When you look at the other aspects of the left tackle in terms of setting the edge in the run game, pulling, trapping, and their countless other responsibilities in angle and track blocking, reach blocking, drive blocking, and zone blocking, you have to recognize the importance and the difficulty of finding a player who can perform well in all of those areas.
Ryan Clady is one of those few, and he’s truly an elite talent. That's why he got the contract he did, and that's why he deserved it.
By now, most lists of the most important positions would say that the cornerback is either the next one up or should have already been mentioned. There's no question in my mind that cornerback is an incredibly important position - no team is really Super Bowl-ready unless they have a very fine defensive backfield.
That brings up the evolving needs for teams at cornerback and safety.
The modern defensive back is one who must be equally effective at tackling and run support, as well as in coverage. That's becoming equally true for cornerbacks’ tackling skills as it is for the safeties’ coverage skills. Denver’s been working on developing that since they first took on Renaldo Hill, a former cornerback himself.
Denver now is extremely well blessed in this regard. They have quality defensive backs all the way from young free safety Rahim Moore to the graybeard of the defense, Champ Bailey, who is still one of the best in the business. Champ is one of the elite players whom you pay like he’s one of the best - because he is.
Chris Harris is showing signs of taking over that level of play from him when he finally does move on. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has a one-year window to show that he has the multiplicity of skills that delineates a top modern cornerback.
To finish, none of these players would be partly as exciting without the pass catchers - the wide receivers. There's an argument right now as to whether Denver, with their trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker, have the best group in the league. That question is going to be answered resoundingly in the coming season, so I'm not going to talk much about it. I find it difficult to argue that they are not one of the elite trios in the league - whether they are the ‘best’ or not is something we'll find out.
When you consider it, Denver has elite players in place at all of the pass-centric positions. I'm not sure if you can argue that Thomas or Decker is currently elite - I’m leaning to saying yes on both, and feel pretty strongly on Thomas - but I'm very sure that Wes Welker is. Thomas is a rare physical specimen who should end up as an elite receiver - he seems to be headed in that direction. My personal take is that Eric Decker has been consistently underestimated since he was up for the draft. I followed him when I he was at Minnesota, and I was thrilled when the Broncos chose him.
If he isn't elite, which I’m fine with, he is certainly an exciting and very talented player. Some of his one-handed catches and sideline-tiptoe maneuvers remind me of how hard it is to rank players like him. I wouldn't be surprised if he develops into a constantly dangerous third-down weapon, and the combination of speed between Decker and Thomas on the edges creates a matchup nightmare for almost any defense. Adding Welker to it is just pure meanness - in the best way possible.
The running game is a whole other article, but when you look at Denver’s pass-oriented positions, they have a sufficiency of riches that borders on a plethora. It should be a heck of a season.