Power Ranking the NFL's Top 50 Active Offensive Linemen

Cody Swartz@cbswartz5Senior Writer IFebruary 3, 2012

Power Ranking the NFL's Top 50 Active Offensive Linemen

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    It’s notoriously difficult to grade offensive linemen, especially considering there are very limited statistics to evaluate their performance.

    The Pro Bowl voting doesn’t always accurately reflect the true superstars, and it’s often said that the best linemen are the ones whose names are never mentioned. Like a long snapper, an offensive lineman prefers to live in relative anonymity, doing his work without calling attention to himself.

    The following 50 deserve recognition though; they’re fine blockers that allow their quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers to break records and score points.

No. 50 to No. 46

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    50. Andre Smith, OT, Cincinnati Bengals

    He spent the first two years of his NFL career on pace to go down as one of the worst busts in the last decade. Andre Smith struggled to keep his weight down and broke his foot twice in his first two years.

    Smith turned it around in 2011, posting by far his best year yet. He played 14 games—after playing in just five combined in 2009 and 2010—and gave up just three sacks. Smith still isn’t the franchise tackle the Cincinnati Bengals hoped they were getting when they picked him sixth overall in ’09, but the team has to be feeling good about the major strides Smith made.

    49. Jared Gaither, OT, San Diego Chargers

    The San Diego Chargers got a steal when they picked up the 6-foot-9, 345-pound Jared Gaither off the waiver wire. Gaither had been released by the Kansas City Chiefs for committing a costly false start in place of usual left tackle Branden Albert.

    The Chiefs said Gaither lacked the explosiveness he had displayed in Baltimore; he went on though to start five straight games down the stretch for the Chargers without giving up a sack. Gaither played more like the All-Pro he had been in the middle of the decade, at one point handling Baltimore Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs with ease.

    48. Jermon Bushrod, OT, New Orleans Saints

    Jermon Bushrod took over as the blindside protector for Drew Brees when Jamaal Brown went down with a season-ending injury  in 2009, and Bushrod played well enough the team viewed him as their left tackle of the future. He struggled at times that season but helped the New Orleans Saints go on to win the Super Bowl championship over the Indianapolis Colts.

    Bushrod earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2011 after helping Brees set the single-season record for most passing yards.

    47. Jonathan Goodwin, C, San Francisco 49ers

    The San Francisco 49ers made an underrated offseason acquisition when they went out and signed center Jonathan Goodwin to a three-year contract. Goodwin had been a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion in New Orleans, blocking for Drew Brees and the Saints’ record-setting offense.

    As a veteran on a relatively young offensive line in San Francisco, Goodwin earned another Pro Bowl appearance and helped the Niners to a 13-3 record and NFC West division title. That’s pretty good for a guy who spent his first two years in the NFL as a backup guard, struggling to find playing time.

    46. Ryan Clady, OT, Denver Broncos

    Let’s be clear: Ryan Clady is nowhere near as good as people think he is. He had his worst year as a pro by far in 2011, giving up a sack in six separate games, as well as countless quarterback pressures. He didn’t deserve his Pro Bowl selection, his second such he has received in four years in the league.

    Clady still makes the list because he had a great season as a rookie in 2008 and good seasons in 2009 and 2010. He gave up just half a sack in his initial season in the league, prompting Sporting News to call him the best offensive tackle in the NFL prior to the ’09 season. The potential is there and when he is on his game, Clady plays among the best linemen in the game.

No. 45 to No. 41

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    45. Harvey Dahl, G, St. Louis Rams

    Per Pro Football Focus, Harvey Dahl is one of just eight guards in the NFL to have rated as an above-average player in each of the previous four seasons. Dahl is a top run blocker and a solid enough pass blocker. The Rams made the right move inking Dahl to a four-year contract prior to the season; he should help to provide stability to an offensive line that isn’t giving Sam Bradford any time to throw the football.

    44. Chris Snee, G, New York Giants

    He’s Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law; hope that doesn’t make it awkward if he continues the decline he has shown the past several seasons and Coughlin has to part ways with him.

    Chris Snee has been one of the best guards in the NFL since he took over as the starter eight years ago; his time with the New York Giants has coincided with Coughlin’s tenure as head coach and Eli Manning’s time as quarterback. Snee was a key part of the Giants team that won the Super Bowl in 2007 and led the NFL in rushing offense in 2008.

    Snee’s play has dropped off at a steady rate over the years; in fact, 2011 was his worst season as a pro. He was overmatched in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, giving up two sacks and three quarterback pressures. He gets major points for his durability though, as Snee has missed just one game in the last seven seasons.

    43. Nick Hardwick, C, San Diego Chargers

    He’s gone from a defensive tackle on the scout team at Purdue University to a Pro Bowl center for one of the NFL’s highest scoring offenses. Nick Hardwick was at his best as a pass blocker in 2011, giving up just seven quarterback pressures and no sacks throughout the entire season. He’s actually gone 26 games without giving up a sack.

    42. Bobbie Williams, G, Cincinnati Bengals

    The former Philadelphia Eagles guard is arguably the most underrated offensive lineman in the NFL. Bobbie Williams isn’t flashy and few people outside of Cincinnati even know his name, but the reality is that he’s been one of the best guards in the league in recent years.

    Williams has been an anchor of the Bengals line for eight seasons, during which he’s helped the team to the playoffs three times. He’s been instrumental in the development of 2009 first round draft pick Andre Smith, and has served as a veteran presence for the Bengals.

    41. Maurkice Pouncey, C, Pittsburgh Steelers

    His most memorable moment as a rookie was not being able to suit up for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl appearance, a move that may have contributed more to the Steelers’ loss than anything else.

    Pouncey probably isn’t quite as good as people think he is, but that absolutely devastated the Steelers in the game against Green Bay. His backup, Doug Legursky, didn’t play very well, and the Steelers may actually have won with Pouncey.

    Pouncey was inconsistent this year but earned his second Pro Bowl selection in as many years. He’s actually been named to the All-Pro team in both of his NFL seasons, and he should be an anchor for the next decade for a Steelers team that lacks a strong offensive line.

No. 40 to No. 36

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    40. Todd McClure, C, Atlanta Falcons

    Even at 34 years old, Todd McClure is still one of the top centers in the game. He played nearly 1,000 snaps in 2011 and didn’t give up a sack.

    McClure has lost some of his physical skills but he’s as sharp of a player as ever. McClure missed three games early this season—the first time he missed any games since 2001. He rebounded strong, and the Atlanta Falcons averaged 0.8 more yards per rush with McClure in the lineup than when he was injured.

    39. Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins

    The fourth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft struggled as a rookie, looking overmatched from the day he entered the league. Williams gave up a whopping 11 sacks, and let up at least one in eight different games.

    He made major strides in 2011. Williams allowed two sacks in the opener against the New York Giants, but then didn’t let up a sack for his final 11 games before a suspension for illegal drugs ended his year prematurely.

    38. Todd Herremans, OT, Philadelphia Eagles

    He displayed his versatility in 2011, moving from the left guard position he had played for the previous five seasons to right tackle. Todd Herremans started 15 of the 16 games at right tackle. The one time he was needed elsewhere was when he filled in for Jason Peters at left tackle against the Washington Redskins, and he turned in arguably his best all-around performance of the season.

    Herremans isn’t a terrific pass blocker, but he is a road grader in the running game, and he was largely influential for LeSean McCoy’s breakout season on the ground. Herremans is also a dynamic pass catcher, as he has two career receptions, both for touchdowns.

    37. Eric Winston, OT, Houston Texans

    Many people fail to realize the talent the Houston Texans have at their offensive tackle positions with Duane Brown on the left side and Eric Winston on the right side.

    Winston has been a Pro Bowl caliber right tackle for several seasons now. He was a key contributor in both the running and passing game in the 2011 season, helping quarterbacks Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates have time to throw the ball while paving the way for Arian Foster and Ben Tate on the ground.

    36. Eugene Monroe, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Eugene Monroe was a highly touted offensive line prospect coming out of college who struggled as a rookie in 2009. He wasn’t much better in 2010, but finally played to his potential in 2011.

    Monroe still lets up too many sacks but he is a fine run blocker and was a key reason why running Maurice Jones-Drew was able to lead the NFL in rushing yards.

No. 35 to No. 33

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    35. Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco 49ers

    He’s still one of the NFL’s more underrated guards but a few more seasons like the ones he’s been having and Mike Iupati will be known nationally.

    He was a first round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in the 2010 NFL draft and played well right from the start. Iupati didn’t allow a sack or commit a penalty until Week 5, and he was voted onto ESPN’s 2010 All-NFC West Team. He followed that up with an even stronger season, helping Alex Smith finally put together a breakout season at quarterback.

    34. John Sullivan, C, Minnesota Vikings

    John Sullivan took over as the starting center for the Minnesota Vikings when Matt Birk left for the Baltimore Ravens via free agency.

    Sullivan was mediocre for his first two seasons before establishing himself as a Pro Bowl caliber player in 2011. Sullivan rated as the third best center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

    33. David Stewart, OT, Tennessee Titans

    He combines with Michael Roos to give the Tennessee Titans a very solid pair of bookend offensive tackles for young quarterback Jake Locker.

    David Stewart rated as the second best offensive tackle in the NFL in 2011, behind just Jason Peters (according to Pro Football Focus). Stewart is a phenomenal pass blocker and he’s been very durable for the Titans—missing just four games due to injury in the last six seasons.

32. Eric Wood, C, Buffalo Bills

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    Eric Wood’s best value to the Buffalo Bills may be his versatility: He started at right guard in his first two NFL seasons before switching to center for 2011. The former first round pick is a Pro Bowler in the waiting, as he didn’t give up any sacks, and he also excels in the running game and on screen passes.

    Wood has played through some gruesome injuries. He suffered a compound fracture of both leg bones as a rookie in ’09 when Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Montavious Stanley turned Wood’s two leg bones into four (warning: very graphic).

    He rebounded in time to play all 16 games in 2010, a phenomenal accomplishment considering the severity of the injury he sustained, and he was selected to USA Football’s All-Fundamentals Team.

    Wood then tore his ACL in Week 10 this season, and the Bills went just 1-6 without Wood after going 5-4 with him in the lineup. He still rated as one of the top centers in the game, despite playing just a little over half the season. Wood may miss the start of 2012, but he will be a key part of the Bills for the future—assuming he can just avoid the fluke injuries.

31. Ben Grubbs, G, Baltimore Ravens

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    He finally made the Pro Bowl in 2011, a much overdue honor for one of the game’s top guards. Ben Grubbs has been a staple on the Baltimore Ravens since the team drafted him in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft.

    Grubbs was initially a defensive tackle at Auburn University before switching to tight end and then finally to offensive guard. Grubbs began his NFL career as a left guard and moved to right guard in 2008, where he’s been ever since.

    Grubbs was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2009 and finally made the team in ’11, even though he missed six games with a toe injury.

30. Steve Hutchinson, G, Minnesota Vikings

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    He’s clearly on the downside of his NFL career, but Steve Hutchinson is still one of the top guards in the league, even at the age of 34. Since being taken in the first round of the 2001 draft, Hutchinson has made seven Pro Bowl teams, earned five All-Pro selections, and been chosen on the 2000s NFL All-Decade Team.

    Strictly by the numbers at Pro Football Focus, Hutchinson in 2011 had his best overall year since 2008. He rated as the eighth best guard in the game, and he helped running back Adrian Peterson have another strong year running the football.

29. Sebastian Vollmer, OT, New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots have one of the more underappreciated players in the league in Sebastian Vollmer, a second round pick in 2009 who has played very well at the right tackle position.

    Vollmer missed the majority of 2011 with a right foot injury, starting just five of the team’s 16 games. When he is healthy, he’s a strong pass blocker. He was voted onto the AP All-Pro Team for the 2010 season, and also earned recognition on ESPN’s All-Underrated Team.

28. Duane Brown, OT, Houston Texans

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    Duane Brown is the answer to a trivia question: Who was the only offensive tackle to start all 16 games in 2011 and not surrender a sack? He’s a key player as the blindslide protector for Matt Schaub (and T.J. Yates down the stretch).

    That’s especially impressive considering how poorly he began his career—Brown gave up 10 sacks in his first 10 NFL starts, prompting many to speculate the 2008 first round pick was a bust.

    He began to show major improvement in 2009 and 2010, and finally turned the corner into stardom in 2011. He began the season with a strong performance against All-Pro pass rusher Dwight Freeney, holding Freeney to no tackles or sacks for 60 minutes. Brown teamed with right tackle Eric Winston as one of the more underrated tackle tandems in the game.

27. Alex Mack, C, Cleveland Browns

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    He’s been remarkably durable since the Cleveland Browns picked him in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft. Not only has Mack started all 48 games since joining the league, he hasn’t missed a single snap.

    Mack played in the Pro Bowl following the 2010 season, and although he missed out this past year, he had another fantastic campaign. Mack is a strong pass blocker, as he gave up just eight quarterback pressures in 2011.

26. Kris Dielman, G, San Diego Chargers

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    The San Diego Chargers will greatly miss Kris Dielman if he retires this offseason, as he has said he may do. Dielman suffered a concussion midway through the 2011 NFL season, and then a seizure on the team’s return flight to San Diego. The scare of permanent injuries may force the 30-year old Dielman into early retirement.

    It would be a shame for the Chargers and Philip Rivers if Dielman does retire, considering the remarkable career he’s had against all odds. In 2003, Dielman was an undrafted free agent out of Indiana University, and the Chargers converted him from defensive tackle to offensive guard.

    Dielman started 14 of the team’s 16 games at left guard in 2005 and was a Pro Bowler by 2007. He went on to make four consecutive Pro Bowls, earning All-Pro honors twice. Dielman was terrific in the six games he started in 2011 before suffering his concussion; he gave up just four quarterback pressures and no sacks.

25. Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas Cowboys got a major find in Tyron Smith, a player they can pencil in on their offensive line for the next 10-12 seasons.

    Smith was a right tackle as a rookie, but may move to left tackle considering the struggles of Doug Free (10 sacks allowed). Smith allowed eight himself, but he should only improve after his rookie season, and he was good enough in run blocking that PFF still rated him as the fourth best offensive tackle in the league.

    He will need to improve against his division foes: Smith gave up four sacks in two games against the Philadelphia Eagles, but he should only get better with age. The Cowboys may have the kind of player in Smith that will be to eight or more Pro Bowls when it’s all said and done.

24. Evan Mathis, G, Philadelphia Eagles

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    For the first six years of his NFL career, Evan Mathis was a journeyman guard for the Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins, and Cincinnati Bengals.

    He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and won a job as the starter in training camp this past August. Mathis ended up having the single most dominant season of any lineman in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus. He was phenomenal as a run blocker but also didn’t allow a sack the entire year. In fact, since PFF was founded in 2008, Mathis hasn’t allowed a sack in 1,846 snaps.

    He’s a free agent as of this coming March but given the production he gave the Eagles this past season, the team should do everything in its power to re-sign Mathis to a long-term deal.

23. Ryan Kalil, C, Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers franchised Ryan Kalil for the 2011 season, and then signed him to a six-year, $49 million deal that will keep him in uniform with the team through 2016.

    Kalil has started 16 games each of the past three seasons, and he’s been to three Pro Bowls. He rates as the NFC’s best center during that span, and his skills as both a pass and run blocker will be vital for young quarterback Cam Newton.

22. Andy Levitre, G, Buffalo Bills

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    In their first two picks of the 2009 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills chose center Eric Wood and guard Andy Levitre, two players who will be a cornerstone of the offensive line for the next decade.

    Levitre was named to the Sporting News All-Rookie Team in ’09 and has shown steady improvement in each of his three NFL seasons. He has played all 48 games and played his best ball in 2011. He rates as the best blocker against screen passes among any guard in the league, and he played exceptionally well against the pass too.

21. Brandon Moore, G, New York Jets

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    He’s been underrated across the NFL for many years, and Brandon Moore was finally rewarded for his outstanding play in 2011 when he played in his first Pro Bowl.

    Moore joined the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and won a starting job as the right guard by 2004. He has started every game for the Jets since ’05, and in fact, his 121 consecutive starts lead all active guards.

    Moore didn’t give up any sacks in 1,116 snaps in 2011. In fact, he only gave up one sack in each of the prior three seasons, prompting ESPN to vote Moore the most underrated member of the Jets.

20. Michael Roos, OT, Tennessee Titans

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    Michael Roos is a mammoth of a man at 6’7”, and he has been the cornerstone of the Tennessee Titans since being drafted in 2005. Roos hasn’t missed a start, clocking in at 112 straight regular season games.

    He was voted to the Pro Bowl following the 2008 season and has been named an All-Pro twice. Roos rebounded from a poor 2010 campaign to give up just one sack in over 1,000 snaps in 2011.

19. Bryan Bulaga, OT, Green Bay Packers

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    Like Eugene Monroe, Bryan Bulaga was a major liability as a rookie, and in fact, was one of the worst players on the 2010 Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Bulaga started at right tackle and gave up more sacks (12) than any other offensive tackle in the league.

    He showed an incredible turnaround this year, yielding just one sack in 12 games while helping Aaron Rodgers turn in one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. The Packers spent their past two first round picks storing up bookend offensive tackles in Bulaga and Derrick Sherrod, players that should be instrumental in the next decade or more for the Packers.

18. Tyson Clabo, OT, Atlanta Falcons

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    Tyson Clabo bounced around the league when he debuted in 2004, going from the Denver Broncos to the New York Giants to the San Diego Chargers back to the Broncos and then finally to the Atlanta Falcons by 2005.

    Clabo became the starting right guard in 2006 and moved to right tackle by ’07, where he’s been the starter ever since. Clabo has started 64 consecutive games for a Falcons team that has made three playoff appearances since 2008.

    Clabo was named to the Pro Bowl in 2010 and had another strong season in 2011, grading well as both a pass and run blocker. He earned a much-deserved four-year extension in the summer of ’11.

17. Brian Waters, G, New England Patriots

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    He had a bounce back season in 2011, playing much like the All-Pro player he was for the middle of last decade. Brian Waters went to six Pro Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs before parting ways with them.

    He signed with the New England Patriots on a two-year deal and had a remarkable season, grading as the fourth best guard in the NFL.

    Waters—who had never won a playoff game with the Chiefs—will be playing in the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

16. Jahri Evans, G, New Orleans Saints

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    Jahri Evans’ 2009 season is the single top-rated season of any offensive lineman since Pro Football Focus was founded in 2008. Evans graded as a 42.9, which stands as one of just three seasons to ever top 40 on the website’s rating scale.

    Evans was instrumental in the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl championship that season, earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Evans saw his play drop off in 2010, although he still made the Pro Bowl and earned AP All-Pro honors. He turned in a bounce back season in 2011, helping Drew Brees shatter the single-season record for passing yards.

    Evans is renowned for his durability, as the former Division-II collegiate player has started all 16 games in each of his six seasons in the NFL.

15. Scott Wells, C, Green Bay Packers

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    He’s long been one of the NFL’s most underrated players, and 2011 finally saw Scott Wells make the Pro Bowl. A former seventh round pick, Wells played left guard early on for the Green Bay Packers before taking over as the starting center in 2006.

    Wells ranks as the top NFC center since 2008, having been a key part of an underrated offensive line for the Packers. Wells’ key blocking down the stretch in 2010 helped the Packers capture the Super Bowl title.

14. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, New York Jets

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    D’Brickashaw Ferguson is widely considered among the top left tackles in the game, as he’s been voted to three straight Pro Bowls now. Ferguson was initially taken fourth overall in the 2006 NFL draft by the New York Jets, and has been a staple in the line.

    Ferguson is quick and well-coordinated, but the knock on him has always been his susceptibility to the bull rush, making him at times a liability in the passing game. Ferguson gave up just three sacks in 2010 but saw that figure rise to eight in 2011. Still, he had his share of fine moments, such as his Week 1 game against Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, in which Ferguson stood his ground well for 60 minutes.

    Combine that with the fact that Ferguson is easily one of the best run blocking tackles in the game, and you have a tremendous all-around player.

13. Matt Light, OT, New England Patriots

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    He’s now been on all five New England Patriots teams to have gone to the Super Bowl under Bill Belichick, joining just Tom Brady and Kevin Faulk among players to have done so.

    Matt Light debuted in the NFL in 2001, as he was taken in the second round of that year’s draft. Light started 12 games at left tackle as a rookie, including the Super Bowl, and found himself a regular on the offensive line for the next decade.

    He’s started 153 regular season games since joining the league, made three Pro Bowls, and was chosen as the 2007 Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP award winner.

    Light is still a phenomenal lineman, even at age 33. He is good at all the phases of the game—pass blocking, run blocking, and blocking on screen passes

12. Josh Sitton, G, Green Bay Packers

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    You could make a legitimate case for Josh Sitton as the most underrated player in the National Football League.

    Josh Sitton was a fourth round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2008 NFL draft. He began his career as a tackle, playing sparingly as a rookie, before he earned the job as the full-time right guard in 2009. Since then, Sitton has started 46 of 48 regular season games.

    He hasn’t been selected to the Pro Bowl, but Pro Football Focus sees his true value: Sitton rates as the fifth best lineman in all of the NFL since ’09, and he’s the highest ranked player to have never made the Pro Bowl. He earned a contract extension that will keep him in Green Bay through the 2016 season.

11. Marshal Yanda, G, Baltimore Ravens

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    Speaking of underrated players, Marshal Yanda may be king of the group. Yanda finally earned his first Pro Bowl selection in the 2011 season, although he’s been deserving for quite some time.

    Yanda has seen steady improvement in his play since being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2007 draft. He can play both positions on the right side of the line—guard and tackle—although he’s best suited as a guard now that Michael Oher is manning the right tackle position.

    Yanda is still just 27 years old, and he and Ben Grubbs team to form arguably the best guard tandem in the NFL.

10. Logan Mankins, G, New England Patriots

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    Tom Brady has to be thrilled the New England Patriots were finally able to come to terms on a long-term deal with All-Pro guard Logan Mankins. Mankins held out the first seven games of the 2010 season because he couldn’t get his contract resolved, and even publicly requested a trade.

    He was given the franchise tag for 2011, before eventually signing a six-year, $51 million deal in August that makes him the highest-paid interior offensive lineman in NFL history. The deal is well worth it for Mankins, a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro who has been a key part of two Super Bowl teams.

    Mankins saw his play drop off slightly in ’11, but he is still young enough and talented enough as both a pass and run blocker that he should be a force for many more years.

9. Jordan Gross, OT, Carolina Panthers

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    Few players in the NFL have moved on the offensive line as much as Jordan Gross. He was a right tackle as a rookie, playing every snap in 2003 for a Carolina Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Gross moved back to left tackle for 2004, then right tackle in 2005, left tackle again in 2006, right tackle in 2007, and finally left tackle in 2008 where he has been ever since. Gross has made two Pro Bowls and been voted First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

8. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Cincinnati Bengals

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    He should be a perennial Pro Bowler, but he still lives in relative anonymity and it doesn’t help that Andrew Whitworth plays the same position in the same conference as Jake Long and Joe Thomas.

    Whitworth is a stellar pass blocker, and in fact, no AFC tackle rates better since 2010 (per PFF), including Long and Thomas. In fact, Whitworth was voted the Cincinnati Bengals Team MVP for the ’10 season, according to the Football Writers of America. He had another terrific season in 2011, although he did fade off down the stretch. He’s probably the best pass blocking tackle in the league, other than Joe Thomas.

    Whitworth is extremely consistent, uses terrific footwork, and protects Andy Dalton as well as anyone could in the game, a task that isn’t easy considering the speed rushers he has to face within his division. Whitworth signed a two-year extension this past August, one that will keep him in Cincinnati through the 2015 season.

7. Jeff Saturday, C, Indianapolis Colts

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    Jeff Saturday has long been one of the top centers in the NFL, a stunning achievement considering he went undrafted back in 1998.

    The Indianapolis Colts signed Saturday after the Baltimore Ravens released him, and Saturday has started 188 games for the Colts since 1999. He’s been named to five Pro Bowls and the AP All-Pro team twice.

    Saturday has stated he may retire this offseason, but if he does, the Colts will be missing a terrific player. Saturday can still play with the best of them, even at age 36. He’s a terrific pass blocker, run blocker, and on screen passes.

6. Chris Myers, C, Houston Texans

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    Chris Myers has been an underrated center for several seasons now, but he emerged as arguably the best in the business with his stellar 2011 campaign.

    Myers rated as the best at his position on PFF’s ratings, registering a plus 29.8 for the season. He gave up just one sack but was at his best as a dynamic road blocker for All-Pro runner Arian Foster. Myers actually was passed over for the Pro Bowl initially but made it when Maurkice Pouncey’s injury kept him out of the game.

5. Carl Nicks, G, New Orleans Saints

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    Carl Nicks has been vastly underrated during his tenure with the New Orleans Saints, and he should get a big payday now that he is entering free agency.

    Nicks has started 61 of a possible 64 games since entering the NFL as a fifth round draft pick in 2008. He has made consecutive Pro Bowls and been named to the AP All-Pro team each of the past two years. Simply put, the Saints’ record-breaking offense wouldn’t be the same without Nicks on the offensive line, and the team will greatly miss him if he leaves in the offseason.

4. Nick Mangold, C, New York Jets

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    Since the 2008 season, Nick Mangold rates as the top offensive lineman in the game, according to Pro Football Focus. His rating of 134.0 is miles ahead of the second best lineman (Carl Nicks, 101.9) and nearly 60 points higher than the next-best center (Chris Myers, 75.7).

    He entered the league as an immediate star. The New York Jets took him in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft, and he started all 16 games as a rookie, giving up just half a sack. He has missed just two games in his six-year career (both this year with an ankle injury).

    Mangold has been voted to the Pro Bowl squad for each of the previous four seasons, and he’s been chosen for the AP All-Pro team three straight years. Mangold’s strength is that he’s a natural lineman. He’s terrific blocking for both the run and the pass, and he’s a natural leader for the Jets.

3. Jake Long, OT, Miami Dolphins

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    Before the season, either Jake Long or Joe Thomas was probably regarded as the best offensive lineman in the league. Long has been absolutely sensational since he was drafted first overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 2008 NFL draft.

    He has been to four consecutive Pro Bowls, and he was named on the AP All-Pro team twice. Long is a monster blocker in both the passing and running game. What kept him from ranking higher on the list primarily was his disappointing 2011 season; Long had by far his worst year as a pro.

    Long gave up just two sacks as a rookie, four in his second year, and six in his third year in the league. He gave up four in the first three weeks of 2011. Although Long settled down and gave up just one sack in his final 10 games before being placed on Injured Reserve with a torn triceps, Long still wasn’t his usual dominant self.

    He enters the 2012 season in the final year of the five-year deal he signed when the team drafted him in ’08. It’s likely he will be locked up long-term before the season starts, but the Dolphins have to be hoping for better production in ’12 from their franchise left tackle.

2. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland Browns

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    Joe Thomas was a phenomenal pick for the Cleveland Browns as the third overall selection in the 2007 NFL draft. He’s been to five Pro Bowls in five seasons and at this rate, it’s safe to say Thomas will go to the Pro Bowl as long as he’s still in the league.

    Thomas hasn’t missed a start since being drafted. He was named First-Team AP All-Pro each of the last three leagues, and this is for a guy who plays in the same conference as Jake Long. USA Today named Thomas the best offensive tackle in the NFL.

    Thomas has helped Jamal Lewis record two 1,000-yard rushing seasons and Peyton Hillis top the 1,000-yard plateau in 2010. Thomas gives up more sacks than one would expect from a left tackle of his caliber, but that may be more because of the poor quality of quarterbacks the Browns have had in the last five years than Thomas’s inability to block.

1. Jason Peters, OT, Philadelphia Eagles

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    You could make a strong case for Jason Peters as the Philadelphia Eagles’ team MVP in 2011. He has been to five straight Pro Bowls now, but really came into his own as an all-around blocker this past season.

    Pro Football Focus rated Peters nearly twice as high as any other offensive tackle. Running back LeSean McCoy averaged 7.5 yards per carry on his 34 runs behind Peters, according to PFF. McCoy averaged just 4.4 yards per run on his other 239 carries. Watch this video to see how good Peters is at downfield blocking.

    Peters also was tremendous against the pass, giving up just three sacks in 14 starts, despite playing in a division that boasts a plethora of fine pass-rushers (DeMarcus Ware, Jason Pierre-Paul, Jason Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Brian Orakpo). Many times Peters kept them as a complete non-factor for the game.

    Peters did all this as the anchor of an offensive line that thrust two rookies into the starting rotation (center Jason Kelce and right guard Danny Watkins). This is pretty good work for a former undrafted college tight end who initially had to work his way onto special teams on the Buffalo Bills before taking over as the full-time starter.

    Peters edges out Thomas and Long on this list because of his better all-around season in 2011 as both a run and pass blocker.