When Phil Loadholt signed his extension with the Vikings in 2013, it was at the time the highest average salary ever negotiated by a right tackle. Only Doug Free, who had negotiated his contract as a left tackle before being moved to the right by the selection of Tyron Smith in the 2011 draft, carried a higher average salary on the right side of the offensive line—and he had since renegotiated. Two periods of free agency later, Loadholt’s contract ranks third in average salary among right tackles, in part due to Colts general manager Ryan Grigson’s odd decisionmaking.
That sort of money begets running afoul of Betteridge’s Law and trying to determine whether or not Phil Loadholt is really a top-tier right tackle, or at the very least whether or not his play is commensurate with his pay. The fact that the right tackle position has evolved quickly in the past few years, doesn’t help Loadholt, who is more of a classic road-grader with strength and heft.
Research has strongly suggested that pressure from the right is just as devastating as it is from the left, and NFL teams are following suit by investing in pass-protecting right tackles. Teams are no more likely to run to the right than the left, and in fact had run to the left side of the line slightly more often in 2013, so there’s no reason for RTs to be run-blocking specialists.
These developments should have been alarming for the Vikings and Phil Loadholt, more well-known as a run blocker with problems in pass protection. It’s true that he’s had issues, particularly with speed rushers, but they had been overblown because of high-profile sacks but not necessarily because of a consistent liability.
Of all tackles in 2010 and 2011, Loadholt generally proved to be somewhat average. With 1700 pass blocking snaps in that time, an average tackle would give up 12 sacks, 13 hits and 54 hurries. Loadholt gave up 12 sacks, five hits and 65 hurries. Loadholt paired that pass blocking with maddening penalty trouble, however.
In those two years, only J’Marcus Webb incurred more penalties. Throw in the 2009 season as well, and Loadholt is the lone leader at the top of the yellow flag heap.
Even Loadholt’s run-blocking was suspect at times. Consistently able to drive defenders off the ball upon contact or smother players at the line of scrimmage when given freedom, Loadholt sometimes struggled in the zone-running work when uncovered. Getting to the second level or using athleticism to create space for the running back were both issues for the massive Oklahoma product. Nevertheless, it was still better than most of the league and he earned a positive run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus (where all of this data, unless otherwise noted, comes from) to show for it.
Since then, however, Loadholt has ramped it up.
In the last two years, he’s only allowed eight sacks, nine hits and 50 hurries. Compared to the average tackle (again, 12 sacks, 13 hits and 54 hurries), that’s very good. It’s beginning to compare to the elites.
Four tackles made various 2013 All-Pro teams: Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Joe Staley and Tyron Smith. 2012 also saw Duane Brown and Ryan Clady added to that list. In those two years, Trent Williams was named to two Pro Bowls.
Phil Loadholt compares well to those tackles over their last two full seasons. Staley and Williams both gave up more sacks, while Thomas and Brown gave up more hits. The hurries don’t look quite as good as only Smith gave up more, but all told it’s comparable.
All that said, he still doesn’t rank among the top pass protectors in the league—he’s just been clearly better than average for two years now. Of the 42 tackles that have taken 750 snaps in the past two years, he ranks 17th in Pass Blocking Efficiency—a proprietary PFF stat that weights sacks, hits and hurries and takes into account the number of pass blocking snaps a player has taken.
Among right tackles, he ranks sixth of 20.
It may hurt his case as an elite tackle to say that he comes in as a “very good” pass protector but nothing more, but he’s turned into an elite run-blocking tackle as well, and very few offensive tackles are good at both. In fact, if one were to score PBE and PFF’s run blocking scores like baseball statisticians score OPS+ and other plus-metrics, one could see that Loadholt has come in as one of the best in the NFL.
Plus-metrics basically look at the distribution of scores in a particular statistic, give a score of 100 for an average performance and add or subtract 15 points for every standard deviation one is away from the mean. Generally speaking, a score of 115 would be better than 84.1 percent of the population in that statistic. A score of 130 would be better than 97.7 percent of the population, and a score of 145 would be better than 99.8 percent of the population.
Only two tackles scored higher than 115 in both categories in the last two years (and also took 1500 snaps): Joe Staley and Duane Brown. Staley barely manages it in pass protection (with a score of 116) but has dominant run blocking (league-best 153). Brown just beats 115 in both categories (scores of 119 and 118).
The second-best run blocking tackle in the last two years, per PFF, has been Phil Loadholt (scoring 133, or more than two standard deviations above the norm), so if Loadholt is “better enough” at run blocking than those better at him in pass protection, he could be in the “elite” category. Combining the two scores to create a ranking can provide some clue.
Only eight of 43 tackles had a combined score of greater than 115. In order, they were Joe Staley (135), Trent Williams (121), Phil Loadholt (120), Duane Brown (118), Andrew Whitworth (118), Eugene Monroe (117), King Dunlap (116) and Tyron Smith (116).
As you can see, Phil Loadholt is the only right tackle on the list, and it’s even better that he got there playing to his team’s strength as well: running the ball. Running to the right tackle in 2013, Adrian Peterson averaged 5.7 yards a carry, more than in any other direction. In 2012, he averaged a mind-boggling 9.1 yards a carry off of Phil Loadholt—again more than in any other direction.
Loadholt has improved his ability to block down on stretch plays and plays with awareness in space with better movement at the second level than he ever has before.
Further, in 2013, Loadholt was something you’d never have thought he’d be accused of: consistent. Of all the right tackles to place above 20th overall in PFF’s 2013 grades, Loadholt had the third-smallest deviation from game to game (in order: Tyler Polumbus, Demar Dotson, Phil Loadholt, Andre Smith Jr., Zach Strief, Doug Free and Orlando Franklin). The two ahead of him, Polumbus and Dotson, have only put together one year of good play and score well below Loadholt in the combined run-pass scores (81 and 104). Strief ranked marginally ahead of Loadholt in his overall PFF grade, but that inconsistency is damning.
He also reduced his penalty count. Having averaged 11.5 penalties a year—the most of any tackle in the NFL since he joined—he committed only three penalties in 2013.
If Loadholt is being compared to other right tackles, there shouldn’t be any question that he’s elite. He’s already outperforming his contract and putting himself in a position to be one of the few right tackles that should get consideration for Pro Bowl voting. In the context of all tackles, there’s still work he needs to do in pass protection to truly be at the level of his best peers, but if he repeats his 2013 showing, he’s in the conversation.