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Top 20 Offensive Tackles in the NFL: Backing Up My Selections

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Top 20 Offensive Tackles in the NFL: Backing Up My Selections
Brian A. Westerholt/Getty Images

A few days ago, I published my list of the NFL’s top 20 NFL tackles, and I knew there would be some backlash. The best of it (or worst of it?) has come from ESPN, who posted a link to my article here. Check it out to glimpse some of the fine reader comments, which include:

“this guy isnt qualified enough that we acknowledge his list”

“2 questions…1) who is this Jonathan Bales fellow and 2) Can I have his job, because he is obviously under-qualified to be voicing his opinions on these matters”

“That list was crap”

“Who is Jonathan Bales to rank any position in the NFL anywaz??”

“Bales doesn’t seem to have a clue……..”

“Jordan Gross is more like top 10, does Jonathan Bale needs to get his facts straight.”

“And this is why no one has ever heard of Jonathan Bales or the DC Times.”

And my personal favorite:

“I guess Jonathan Bales from the DC Times needs to learn about football before writing a $@%!$@% peice like this.”

It is this kind of support that keeps me writing each day.

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On the Left Tackle/Right Tackle Distinction

Aside from the fact that my list was a total piece of $@%!$@%, I wanted to explain in greater detail why I formulated the rankings I did.

I think the distinction between left tackle and right tackle is highly overrated. Yes, there are differences. Left tackle is a slightly harder position to play because the defense’s best rusher is often lined up on that side.

But the idea that left tackle is monumentally more challenging than the right side is absurd. The alignment of most defenses depends on the offense’s strength, and no team is calling “right-handed” formations 80 percent of the time. The left tackle will see the opponent’s most dominant pass-rusher perhaps 60 percent of snaps.

It’s kind of like saying right tackle is tremendously more important than left tackle in the running game (which is still a prevailing thought), but teams simply don’t run to one side of the field dramatically more than the other because it would be detrimental to their production. Playing left tackle is more difficult than right tackle, but only slightly.

Let’s do some math. The top offensive tackle in the league in terms of pressure rate was Tennessee right tackle David Stewart, who allowed pressure on only 0.86 percent of snaps. Even if we assume 80 percent of the pressures Stewart yields are from the 40 percent of snaps he faces from the opponent’s top pass-rusher (which is likely asevere overestimation), his pressure rate would rise only to 1.15 percent if he played left tackle. That still would be the best rate in the NFL.

Note that I’m disregarding Stewart’s skill set or ability to actually play there, but simply making the mathematical comparison in order to see the jump in pressure rate.

So why do NFL teams pay left tackles the big bucks? I think the primary reason is that left tackles (usually) protect the quarterback’s blind side. If you have $50 million invested in a quarterback, you better protect his butt.  

But there is a difference in the importance of a position and the difficulty in playing it. Left tackle is more important than right tackle because the position is responsible for keeping the quarterback from getting blind-sided. But it is not unbelievably more challenging to play than the right side.

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On the Absence of Jordan Gross and Donald Penn

Since my article was posted in ESPN’s NFC South blog, a lot of the readers wondered how in the hell I could leave Carolina’s Jordan Gross and Tampa’s Donald Penn off of my list.

First, the rankings were for 2011 play alone. Gross in particular is a heck of a player who I would love to have in Dallas, but he didn’t play as effectively in 2011 as he did in prior seasons. Gross’ pressure rate hopped from 1.47 percent in 2010 (stellar) to 3.02 percent this past year. That puts him in Marc Colombo territory.

Nonetheless, Gross is a great player who would certainly make my list of the NFL’s top 20 offensive tackles if the rankings were not for last season alone. Actually, he’d be near the top five.

Penn probably wouldn’t make any list of mine, however. I don’t put much weight into sacks allowed, but the nine Penn yielded in 2011 was pretty bad. His pressure rate correlated nicely with this total at 2.68 percent. In 2010, it was 3.57 percent. In 2009, it was 3.14 percent. Those numbers put him in the bottom half of the league of offensive linemen year in and year out.  

Penn has been very overrated in pass protection for awhile. He’s stout in the running game and he’s good enough to start, but he’s not a top-20 NFL tackle.

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