Protect and serve: NFL's best O-linemen come in all forms

When talking about the best offensive linemen in the NFL, it's easy to mention left tackles because they play an elite position and are typically the best paid. But there's so much more to the success of an offensive line.

I got opinions from three NFL offensive line coaches to go along with my own opinion in creating this list of the 25 best offensive linemen, which includes 11 tackles, eight guards and seven centers. None of the coaches had the same player ranked No. 1, which I found interesting.

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For the record, the three names for the top spot were Joe Thomas, Nick Mangold and Ryan Kalil.

As I have done with the other position rankings this spring, the players will be in groups of five and in alphabetical order inside each group. Each of the 25 O-linemen listed either has an (^) for guys on the rise, (>) for players maintaining their status or (v) for those on the decline.

Group A

Jahri Evans, G, Saints (>): Evans hasn't missed a game in five years. He is a powerful run blocker and has only given up eight sacks in his first 80 starts. He is the highest paid guard in the game.

Jordan Gross, T, Panthers (>): He didn't miss a game in 2010 but has missed eight in the past three years. He has only committed 14 penalties in three years and is very efficient. Gross, who never gets help in pass protection, has given up 39 sacks in his 120 starts.

Jake Long, T, Dolphins (^): Long hasn't missed a start in his three-year career. He only has 17 penalties in his 48 starts and has given up 13 sacks.

Nick Mangold, C, Jets (>): Mangold can dominate a nose tackle or get out on a linebacker in the run game. He hasn't missed a game in his five-year career and gives up a sack once every 10 games.

Joe Thomas, T, Browns (>): Thomas hasn't missed a start in his four-year career. As one line coach said, "He has pass protected for a number of quarterbacks that simply don't get rid of the ball quickly, and he is very efficient." Thomas committed two penalties in 2010 and has just given up 19 sacks in 64 starts.

Group B

D'Brickashaw Ferguson, T, Jets (>): Some have Ferguson up higher than Group B because he is an excellent pass blocker. In his 80 consecutive starts he has grown as a pass protector after early struggles against power rushers. In 2010, he gave up just two sacks.

Ryan Kalil, C, Panthers (^): As I said earlier, he was ranked No. 1 by one NFL line coach. That might surprise some fans but not coaches. Kalil has no holding calls against him in his career, and he has only given up seven sacks.

Carl Nicks, G, New Orleans (^): With the big money the Saints paid Evans, they will be challenged to keep Nicks, who would get big money on the open market. He is a very powerful run blocker and a fine athlete for such a big man. As a pass blocker, he protects the midline where Drew Brees loves to throw from. In Nicks' 45 career starts, he has given up five sacks. Two coaches had him ranked higher than Evans.

Michael Roos, T, Titans (>): Roos had a bit of an off-year in 2010 but is very much respected by the line coaches I interviewed. He has never missed a start in his six-year career. He has only been called for 14 penalties in the last three seasons. Though he gave up 10 sacks last year, he gave up just 10 in the previous three seasons combined. He is a very good run blocker for a left tackle.

Chris Snee, G, Giants (>): Like Roos, Snee hasn't missed a start in his six years. In the last four years he has given up just nine sacks protecting Eli Manning. Snee is a dominant run blocker and is the point of attack for an excellent Giants run game.

Group C

Ryan Clady, T, Broncos (>): Clady is one of the best athletes at the tackle position. He had an off-year in 2010 by his standards, giving up 7.5 sacks and being called for five penalties. Over his three-year career he has given up just 16 sacks. Some coaches love this player, while one ranked him as the ninth-best tackle.

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Logan Mankins, G, Patriots (>): He held out last year and only played in 9 games but made the Pro Bowl anyway. He never missed a start in the five years prior to the holdout. He has given up just 16 sacks in 89 starts. He is a complete player, and it's obvious why the Patriots have franchise tagged him twice.

Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers (^): As one coach said, "Pouncey looked like a 10-year vet in his rookie season last year." As a rookie, he made the Pro Bowl because he finished the season with one penalty, three sacks, and dominated the line of scrimmage. He had no issues with line calls, and his absence in the Super Bowl hurt the Steelers.

Andrew Whitworth, T, Bengals (>): Coaches around the league have liked Whitworth since he became a starter 70 games ago. His leadership skills have emerged since the lockout as he organized team workouts.

Marcus McNeill, T, Chargers (>): McNeil has missed seven games in the last three years. McNeill had only one penalty last year, gave up just 2.5 sacks and returned to old form as an elite left tackle.

Group D

Andre Gurode, C, Cowboys (>): His highest ranking by the line coaches was No. 14, but all three coaches had him in the top 20. He has tremendous sustainability when he gets on a defender and finishes his blocks. In the last three years he has only given up six sacks in 48 starts.

Nick Hardwick, C, Chargers (>): Hardwick was out of sight in 2009 because of injury but came right back in 2010 to his All-Pro form with one penalty and two sacks.

Jeff Saturday, C, Colts (v): No center has a tougher job of adjusting protection calls with Peyton Manning changing plays so much and usually right before the snap. Saturday is like another quarterback on the field. In the last three years Saturday has given up just three sacks.

Josh Sitton, G, Packers (^): A fast-rising player that got some notoriety in the Packers' run to the Super Bowl. He was ranked the 10th-best lineman by one coach. He has 34 career starts and has given up just four sacks.

Brian Waters, G, Chiefs (v): Waters has missed one start in four years. He might be getting closer to the end of his career, but in the last three years he has given up just four sacks.

Group E

Tyson Clabo, T, Falcons (>): Clabo is a very physical player who brings a defensive lineman mentality to the game. He has given up 16 sacks in his last 48 games and is a fine run blocker. He might be a free agent this year when the lockout ends, and he will be looking at a big pay day.

Chad Clifton, T, Packers (v): He is getting close to the end of a very good career, but he still produces. He has missed a few games in the last three years, but his Super Bowl performance proved once again he still has gas in his tank. In 2010 he had zero holding calls but did give up 8 sacks. Aaron Rodgers will take a sack instead of throwing an interception, which could affect Clifton's number. In 154 starts, Clifton has given up 41 sacks.

Kris Dielman, G, Chargers (>): Dielman is right near the top of salaries for guards in the NFL. He has been called for just 10 penalties in three years and gave up 5.5 sacks in those 46 games.

Steve Hutchinson, G, Vikings (v): Hutchinson is a bit long in the tooth, but he still plays at a high level. He did miss five games in 2010 but didn't miss a game in the previous seven years. He only gave up two sacks in 2010.

Jason Peters, T, Eagles (>): Peters had a bad 2008 season for the Bills, giving up close to 12 sacks, and was shipped off to the Eagles. In two years as an Eagle in a heavy passing attack he has given up just eight sacks (two in 2010). The Eagles, under new offensive line coach Howard Mudd, can get even more out of Peters, and he will be pushed.

There are a number of young O-linemen close to the top 25, and by this time next year they should make the list. Keep an eye on Cleveland's Alex Mack, Cincinnati's Kyle Cook, Seattle's Russell Okung, New England's Sebastian Vollmer, St. Louis' Rodger Saffold, and Houston's Eric Winston.

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