The retirement of Phil Loadholt was surprising to more than a few of those in Vikings media, me included. While he indicated he was well on his way to recovery and had taken regular snaps with the first team in offseason training activities, his seemingly sudden decision makes that effort seem hollow in some way.
That’s not the case, of course, for two reasons. The first is that Loadholt may not have necessarily been lying when he said he was feeling 100% and fully healed after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon; there’s some indication he had an unrelated injury two weeks ago, per Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press.
Watching someone take your job while you sit on the sideline for the third consecutive year has to be one of the most frustrating feelings imaginable.
The second reason it wasn’t a hollow effort is unrelated to the first: you have to try before you know. If in fact the unrelated injury didn’t occur and this was instead recurrence of problems with his Achilles, it was still worth going through the motions so that he would know if he was good to go.
It’s an issue for the offensive line if only because there’s no baseline insurance that the player who would win the right tackle job would win a serious competition. That is a real issue when dealing with complete wildcards like Andre Smith and Loadholt.
Smith and Loadholt were both fantastic talents a few years ago.
Between 2011 and 2014, the highest-graded right tackle under Pro Football Focus’ grading rubric was Sebastian Vollmer. The second-highest graded right tackle was Phil Loadholt. In his final two years (25 games), Loadholt—known for penalty concerns—was only penalized six times. He was called 41 times in the prior three years, for an average of 13.7 penalties a year, or 0.85 a game—much worse than the 0.24 a game he ended with.
The third was Andre Smith.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. 2011-2013 were great for Smith, but 2014 was not, where he ended up as the 41st-ranked tackle overall and ranked 28th of all right tackles. In PFF’s 2015 system, which uses a rolling grade over the course of two seasons, he ranked 56th of all tackles.
So for Smith and Loadholt, the 2016 season was about whether or not they could reach their outrageous highs or their infuriating lows. And having two players provides immensely more value than one.
If you have one player whose final level of play is unknown (say, a rating between 0 and 100), you’ll, on average, get an average player, get a poor player a third of the time and an excellent player a third of the time (obviously). That’s a pretty big gamble.
But choosing the best of two players is an entirely different scenario.
In that case, you’re assured a baseline of performance.
There’s a decent thought exercise on this. If Loadholt and Smith’s prospects are something like picking a random starting offensive tackle in the NFL and playing them, then the probability distribution of their talent (i.e. their range of potential outcomes) is something like a bell curve, because NFL talent is distributed that way. Bell curves look like this:
Most players cluster around average, and excellent or particularly terrible players exist on the margins, the “tail” of the curve. You can see it’s not like picking a random number because more players are near the average, so a player in the 60th percentile doesn’t have a rating of 60—because more than 60 percent of players would have a rating below that. With that in mind, we can figure out what general “best” and “worst” case scenarios are.
If the average case is a player with an (imaginary) rating of 50, the “worst case” scenario, where a player is in the bottom 5% of the league, would have a rating of 15—and conversely, a 95th percentile player would have a rating of 85.
And, of course, in 50 percent of cases, you’d have a tackle who was league average or better.
But when you choose the best of two tackles whose talent probability is normally distributed (distributed along a bell curve), things change. Because you get to pick the best of two, the average rises. Generally speaking, the average rating of the winner would be 61 and you would get an above-average tackle 75 percent of the time. Here’s a table of “worst case” (5th percentile tackle) to “best case” (95th percentile tackle)
|Percentile||Rating (One Tackle)||Rating (Best Tackle)|
The “worst case” scenario produces a tackle with a rating over twice as good, and you get generally average production in 85 percent of cases.
That’s the issue with losing Loadholt: no insurance to push up the overall level of play.
On the other hand, the Vikings were in a bind. There was an inordinate amount of roster pressure brought on by all the additional linemen. Ten players were taking first-team reps in OTAs, and nine of them had experience playing a 16-game season: Matt Kalil, Alex Boone, John Sullivan, Mike Harris, Phil Loadholt, Andre Smith, Brandon Fusco, Joe Berger and T.J. Clemmings. The tenth player was Zac Kerin.
Because teams rarely take more than ten players from the offensive line into the regular season (and often take nine), that left rookie Willie Beavers and sophomore Austin Shepherd out in the cold.
This creates room for one of them while also giving the Vikings more latitude on Kerin, who they evidently like quite a bit. Those three players are eligible for the practice squad, and it will help that fewer of them will need to be exposed and that they won’t have to take as much practice squad space up.
Beyond that, if the Vikings don’t want to use the extra room to manage the offensive line competition, it could give them flexibility in dealing with the cornerback situation. Teams don’t often take more than five cornerbacks with them into the offseason, but they have six who all have strong arguments for a spot.
Last year’s starters Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn will join recent draft picks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, while Marcus Sherels has the punt return job essentially locked down.
In the past ten years, the Vikings have kept six cornerbacks three times, and Mike Zimmer in particular has kept six cornerbacks just as often, but this does give them that room.
If the Vikings didn’t want to invest room there, they could always give Moritz Böhringer the shot on the roster that it seems like was lost to him as early as minicamp. With spots for Stefon Diggs, Laquon Treadwell, Charles Johnson and Jarius Wright essentially locked up, Böhringer was competing with special teams ace Adam Thielen and the best kick returner in the league Cordarrelle Patterson.
It is unlikely he would best them at their specialties. If the team wanted to be bold and keep seven players on the roster, this gives them that opportunity.
Seeing Loadholt retire was surprising and sad. It’s still weird to talk about Loadholt “at the end of his career” in reference to 2013 and 2014, especially when he essentially ended on a high note.
Regardless, Loadholt’s retirement causes some specific issues with the roster competition for the right tackle job, but in doing so has created some new opportunities for players who otherwise didn’t have much of a chance.