In early November, Brian Baldinger wanted to know how Orlando Brown Jr. felt about playing left tackle. Ronnie Stanley had just been lost for the season, and the All-Pro’s replacement would be Brown, who’d starred there in college but had made himself into a Pro Bowl right tackle in Baltimore.
“To be honest with you,” Baldinger recalled Brown texting him, “I’m more comfortable on the left side.”
This didn’t surprise Baldinger, a former NFL offensive lineman and current NFL Network analyst. He’d watched Brown dominate at left tackle at Oklahoma, twice being named the Big 12 Conference’s top offensive lineman. He knew NFL scouts who’d quietly hoped Brown would have a disastrous scouting combine and fall to their team in the draft. (The Ravens ultimately took him No. 83 overall in 2018.)
All along, Baldinger said he considered Brown “a natural left tackle.” Brown, 24, sees his future there, too; on Jan. 29, he tweeted, “I’m a LEFT Tackle,” and the Ravens and Brown’s representatives have reportedly begun exploring trades around the league. While no offseason negotiations will have more far-reaching consequences than those with quarterback Lamar Jackson, maybe no evaluations will be as nuanced as those involving Brown.
Left tackle-needy teams and Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta alike will have to consider the same questions: Is Brown actually better off at left tackle? How much does the Ravens’ system and quarterback help offensive tackles, if at all? And what would it take to acquire a two-time Pro Bowl selection entering the final year of his rookie contract?
“You’re not going to want to lose a guy like that,” Baldinger said last week. “But at the same time, if he wants to play left tackle, is he going to force their hand and not take an extension? Play his contract out, so he can go someplace else? I mean, that’s up to [Brown].”
Brown has already made clear his desire to play left tackle, where Stanley’s set to return after a significant ankle injury. Some of Brown’s motivations have been made explicit. His father, Orlando Sr., played six seasons as the Ravens’ right tackle, and he told his son that he wanted Brown Jr. to play where he could not: on the left side.
Other likely incentives have gone unacknowledged by Brown — namely, that the NFL’s best left tackles are better compensated than its best right tackles. Stanley, maybe the NFL’s top tackle in 2019, last year signed a five-year, $98.8 million contract extension, with a $22.5 million signing bonus that makes his contract all but untradeable.
But another consideration has been mostly excluded from the narrative: that Brown, like about 10% of the world’s population, is left-handed. His handedness has not kept him from developing into one of the NFL’s top young tackles, and it does not guarantee that a move to left tackle would unlock the whole of Brown’s potential.
But the position, perhaps not coincidentally, is where he is most experienced, and also where he’s been most productive. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown did not allow a sack or a quarterback hit in his 700 snaps at left tackle last season, the majority of which came after Stanley’s season-ending injury.
Baldinger, who’s right-handed, had to learn to play anywhere he was needed along the line. Sometimes his post hand — the inside hand in pass protection — would be his left hand, and other times it would be his right. But, he said, “I always was more comfortable on the right side. I’m a right-handed guy. I’m right-handed dominant. I can make a left-handed layup, but not as good as I can a right-handed layup. … Put a fork in your left hand and try to eat — you can see how hungry you’re going to be at the end of your meal.”
Even if Brown is more comfortable at left tackle, his responsibilities and opportunities in the Ravens offense are unique. In the 10 games after Stanley went down, including the postseason, Jackson attempted more than 30 passes just once. Over one five-game stretch to end the regular season, he averaged just 20 attempts. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, whom team officials have vowed to better protect, averaged nearly 40 passes per game as a rookie.
Within the structure of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s system, Brown not only gets fewer pass-blocking opportunities but also, in many cases, a more predictable pass rush. Brandon Thorn, an offensive line analyst for Establish the Run and creator of the Trench Warfare podcast and newsletter, said the Ravens’ run-first offense and Jackson’s elusiveness change how edge rushers attack the pocket.
“Maintaining rush lanes and that discipline as a pass-rush unit, I think, takes priority over rushing purely off the edge” against the Ravens, Thorn said. “It’s such a unique offense that it creates a pretty good amount of uncertainty, or at least hesitation, in defenses and pass rushers. You can’t really just pin your ears back and rush them very often because that’s just the style of what they do [on defense].”
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A move to left tackle would not necessarily mean a leveling up in difficulty. As Brown himself said in September, before he switched sides, most defenses have “one good guy rushing on the left tackle, one good guy rushing on the right tackle.” Baldinger pointed to Pro Bowl edge rushers like Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa and T.J. Watt: “You’re seeing maybe much better competition over at right tackle right now than you are at left tackle if you’re looking at just the elite players.”
Where the two positions differ most is schematically. Because of the rise of shotgun and pistol formations, the blind side is less hidden now, but most right-handed quarterbacks are still more comfortable reading and throwing to their right than their left, Thorn said. And depending on a team’s protection schemes, left tackles are typically left out “on an island” more often than right tackles, an isolation that underscores the need for athleticism at the position.
But with the multiplicity and speed of NFL defenses, which hunt for favorable matchups as if they’ve been dropped into an NBA playoff game, there are no easy or straightforward assignments. Said Baldinger: “Whether you’re protecting the blind side or the front side, you’re still trying to stop locomotives coming off the edge right now.”
There is risk inherent in every trade proposal — not just for the front offices potentially giving up a first- or second-round draft pick that they could otherwise use on a cheap but talented rookie. Not just for a Ravens team that watched an unstable offensive line drag its offense and Super Bowl hopes down in 2020.
But for Brown, too. Baldinger said the Ravens offense “really fits him, I think, really well.” Thorn, who’s mostly studied Brown’s play at right tackle, said it would be “hard to imagine [Brown] being better with any other team than he is with Baltimore.” Both were skeptical that he’d remain a perennial Pro Bowl selection on another offense.
For as long as Brown’s on the market, though, DeCosta will no doubt receive interest. With one relatively inexpensive year remaining on Brown’s rookie deal, the Ravens have the leverage in an offseason standoff. They can remain patient. Any team interested in acquiring an established tackle will have to pay a premium. And in the NFL, there will always be interest.
“There’s certainly five, six, seven, eight teams out there who’ll certainly upgrade the left tackle spot Day 1″ by trading for Brown, Thorn said. “There’s never 32 good left tackles in the NFL, and there never will be. There’s naturally going to be teams where they’d love him at left tackle because, even if he’s average instead of above average, that’s going to be quite a bit better than what they already have.”