Friday July 15th, 2016

Lately there's been a movement to knock down the value of a great offensive tackle, especially on the left “blind side,” and there’s some validity to that. Creative pressures and stunts on the inside have made the need for a well-rounded protection scheme paramount, and both the Broncos (Ryan Harris) and Panthers (Michael Oher) made it to the Super Bowl without top-notch left tackles.

But let’s not go nuts here. The value of right tackles are on the rise with many top edge players (Von Miller and Khalil Mack, among others) lined up on the offense’s right, and great left tackles make life for franchise quarterbacks a lot easier over the course of a 16-game season. What follows is our list of the best tackles heading into the 2016 season. But first, a glimpse of the player who will almost surely join this list next year.

The next big thing

Cordy Glenn, Buffalo Bills: Was very tempted to go with the Eagles’ Lane Johnson in this spot since it’s only a matter of time before he ascends Jason Peters’s throne, but Glenn is the much more consistent performer at this point. It was no accident that Glenn got the franchise tag and then signed a $65-million extension. A smooth pass blocker, Glenn needs to improve in the running game to burst open that door he’s been knocking on.

This, admittedly, is a bit of a projection. Solder was on an upswing coming out of the 2013 season but then he fell off a bit due to circumstances out of his control: line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired, and he never seemed to mesh with the coaching style of new coach Dave DeGuglielmo. Solder also endured testicular cancer prior to the ’14 season and then missed most of last season with a torn bicep. Most traumatic of all: his infant son is fighting kidney cancer. Solder is still a terrific athlete and with Bill Belichick luring Scarnecchia out of retirement, and with health on his side (and hopefully his son’s), he should have a big bounce-back season.

Long the dean of left tackles during his prime, including an All-Pro campaign in 2013, Peters is 34 and set to hit the downside of his career. The question is, has the slide already started with a poor performance the last season and a half? Certainly nagging injuries robbed Peters of his patented quick feet, and he probably wasn’t a good fit for Chip Kelly’s scheme, not to mention his sub-par surrounding cast. But don’t underestimate Peters. He’s still capable of being higher on this list if his legs don’t let him down.

You could argue that Schwartz got paid in free agency solely off his impressive performance against Von Miller and the Broncos while with the Browns. But you would be mistaken. Schwartz has developed into a consistently good player that can hold up against the pass and provide movement in the run game. He’s showing that right tackles should get love too, just like the next guy. 

Look no further than the Falcons’ right tackle position (and a switch to the zone-blocking scheme) to see why Atlanta’s previously putrid running game all of a sudden came to life last season. Yes, Schraeder struggled mightily in his matchup with J.J. Watt, but so do a lot of people. The former undrafted player has slowly built himself into a solid all-around tackle. You can definitely argue Schraeder isn’t better than Schwartz right now (however, PFF had Schrader with just two sacks and two hits allowed last season), but another year in the system should give Schraeder the edge.

Staley, who will be 32 in August, is the Old Faithful of offensive linemen. He’s no longer completely dominant thanks to the eroding talent around him, but you’d be hard pressed to find many others that are as consistent as the mammoth bookend. Pass rushers find it a big pain to get around the 6’ 5” Staley once he extends his long arms, while blockers don’t like to take him on in the run game because he plays with great pad level. 

A smart and feisty technician, Whitworth has long been one of the best linemen in the league whether he’s playing tackle spot or at guard. He’s very long, which causes problems for defenders, but what separates Whitworth from many others is his mind. His study skills are off the charts, which allows him to know what’s coming and he’s a conditioning freak. Just like the rest of the Bengals, he has struggled a bit in the biggest games, and that limits how high he ranks on this list. 

Armstead, a third-round pick in ’13, came almost out of nowhere and now the 25-year-old is in the conversation as one of the best young linemen in the game (along with our next pick on this list.) According to PFF, Armstead only allowed 20 pressures last season and his emergence is the biggest reason why Drew Brees’s decline was greatly exaggerated. As soon as his protection was better, boom, Brees was throwing darts again last season. Armstead and his rare athletic ability in the run and pass game should receive a lot of credit.

Williams is well respected by players around the league for his consistency, nasty attitude on the field and blend of strength and athletic ability. Now that he’s entering his second season with noted offensive line coach Bill Callahan, Williams is poised to jump near the top of his list. If anybody slips in front of him, Williams will easily be able to take their place as the next great tackle in the NFL.

Like Staley, you could call Thomas ‘Old Faithful,’ but how about just excellent? There has been zero decline in Thomas’s play and you could make the argument that he’s still the best considering his flawless pass blocking. Thomas is the king of not having any wasted movement in his pass sets, and his balance is second-to-none. We didn’t have him No. 1 because Thomas’s run blocking is very good but it’s not dominating. 

Smith allowed just 22 pressures last season according to PFF and while there are bouts of inconsistency, they are few and far between at this stage in his career as his technique rises to an elite level. Smith has the prototype frame and athletic ability, and he’s now coming into his own. Thomas is more consistent as a pass blocker, but Smith is an absolute butt-kicker in the run game and that’s why he should be the best tackle in the game this season. Smith is on his way to a Hall-of-Fame career.

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