The pass-centric nature of the NFL has turned left tackle into one of the marquee positions in football. Coaches and scouts place a high priority on keeping the quarterback upright, allowing him to comfortably make plays from the pocket. Thus, NFL evaluators spend a lot of time searching for big-bodied athletes with the strength, power and agility to snuff out explosive pass rushers flying off the edge.
When I worked as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks under Mike Holmgren, I had a chance to see how the presence of a stellar LT could transform an offense into a potent unit, as future Hall of Famer Walter Jones manned the blind side in superb fashion. The nine-time Pro Bowler dominated opponents with a rare combination of size and skill. He teamed with perennial Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson to create massive running holes on the left side for Shaun Alexander. As a pass blocker, Jones was one of the standard-bearers at the position, always exhibiting the high level of performance you expect from a franchise-caliber tackle. He thrived in isolation against the elite pass rushers, utilizing flawless technique and a nasty disposition to thwart their attempts off the edge.
Observing Jones' dominance elevated my expectations for so-called "elite" left tackles. Truly dominant players at the position win their one-on-one matchups in spectacular fashion while also displaying sound footwork and fundamentals. Top-notch tackles must be able to hold their own against dynamic pass rushers, as opposed to relying on assistance from tight ends and running backs.
With those lofty expectations in mind, let's continue my "Bucky's Best" series with the top 10 blind-side protectors in the NFL:
10) D'Brickashaw Ferguson, New York Jets: The Jets' offensive line has come under fire in recent years, but the steady play of Ferguson has been a bright spot for the unit. The savvy veteran is a solid technician with the footwork and athleticism to stifle top rushers off the edge. Although Ferguson occasionally surrenders sacks due to lapses in concentration, the ninth-year man is a borderline elite tackle capable of providing All-Pro-type protection.
9) Branden Albert, Miami Dolphins: After pursuing Albert last year on the trade market, the Dolphins finally got their man in free agency, giving the team a blue-chip offensive tackle to protect young quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The seventh-year pro is a nimble, big-bodied blocker with the balance, body control and agility to handle speedy edge rushers. In addition, Albert displays the strength to anchor against rugged foes executing bull rushes or other power maneuvers.
8) Matt Kalil, Minnesota Vikings: It's rare for a young player to master the nuances of his position as quickly as Kalil has at the NFL level. The third-year pro displays superb footwork and fundamentals on the edge, while also flashing impressive athleticism and agility. Factor in his standout skills as a position blocker in the running game, and it's not a surprise NFL scouts are touting him as one of the rising stars at the position. Offseason knee surgery addressed a lingering ailment that sapped Kalil's play a bit in 2013, and he expects to be fully healed for training camp.
7) Duane Brown, Houston Texans: Normally, Brown would rank higher on this list, but his play dipped a bit last season due to an assortment of injuries. However, he is healthy and bulked up at 320 pounds, which should help him re-emerge as a true standout on the blind side. When Brown's firing on all cylinders, there are few left tackles in the game capable of matching his athleticism and technical skill on the perimeter.
6) Ryan Clady, Denver Broncos: After suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 2 last fall, Clady is poised to get back to form in 2014. At 100 percent, he's an athletic pass protector with the agility to shadow the most explosive pass rushers in football. Yes, Clady's return is a scary thought for opponents, considering the Broncos just set numerous offensive records without him.
5) Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys: It's hard to find a more athletic offensive tackle than Smith. Checking in at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Smith is a dancing bear on the perimeter with the quickness to shadow finesse rushers and the strength to stone power rushers at the line. With Smith having proven his pass-blocking prowess at right and left tackle in his first three pro seasons, it's no wonder the Cowboys are talking about locking him up in a lucrative long-term deal.
4) Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers standout is the prototypical left tackle that NFL scouts covet in today's game. Size, strength, athleticism, agility -- Staley has it all. Also, he is a consistent technician with footwork and fundamentals that will allow him to maintain effectiveness when his athleticism begins to wane later in his career. Given his consistency and overall skill set, Staley should remain in contention for the top spot on this list for the next few years.
3) Trent Williams, Washington Redskins: Williams is the most gifted offensive tackle in the game. He is not only freakishly athletic for his size (6-5, 337), but he is a nasty player with the strength, power and explosiveness to maul defenders at the point of attack. Although he can get a little sloppy with his technique at times, Williams is such an imposing physical specimen that his raw talent and ability allow him to dominate elite opponents without assistance. On the verge of his 26th birthday, Williams is also on the verge of overtaking some notable veterans for the top spot on the list.
2) Jason Peters, Philadelphia Eagles: After spending his collegiate career at Arkansas as a defensive lineman and (massive) tight end, Peters went undrafted in 2004. Little did anyone know that he would emerge at one of the game's elite bookends. He overwhelms opponents with his size and athleticism, but is also a technical marvel with the footwork and fundamentals to handle anyone off the edge. His ability to man the back side without assistance allows Chip Kelly to fully flood the passing game with five eligible receivers. Most importantly, Peters' presence at left tackle has allowed young QB Nick Foles to settle into the position without worrying about taking a big shot from behind. Given the correlation between protection and production for the quarterback, Peters' exceptional play is one of the keys to the Eagles' potency under Kelly.
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1) Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns: There are more naturally gifted offensive tackles, but no one can match Thomas' overall excellence since he stepped into the league in 2007. He has been a force of nature on the edge, exhibiting the strength, power, awareness and savvy needed to thwart pass-rush attempts. Thomas is rarely out of control on the perimeter and his remarkable patience allows him to handle speed or power rushers without a problem. Simply put, Thomas has become the gold standard among active players at the position with his stellar play over the past seven years.