Ex-Wolverine Jake Long, Joe Thomas tops among NFL offensive tackles


The NFL’s best: A Detroit News series

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Fifth of a 13-part series ranking the best NFL players at each position.

Being an offensive tackle is a thankless job in the NFL.

There is little mention of stats and you never hear them discussed in any fantasy draft conversation.

Yet, offensive tackles are one of the most important pieces to a good offense.

They protect the quarterback, spearhead the running game and make the offense go.

In today’s NFL, there are two tackles who stand above the rest: Jake Long (Dolphins) and Joe Thomas (Browns).

And their similarities are astonishing:

Both learned the position in the rough-and-tumble trenches of the Big Ten: Long at Michigan and Thomas at Wisconsin.

Both were high draft picks: Long No. 1 in 2008 and Thomas No. 3 in 2007.

Both are perennial Pro Bowlers.

Both are big, strong, athletic, versatile and nasty.

There are 10-12 legitimate Pro Bowl-caliber tackles in the game today, and it’s no coincidence the league is currently enjoying some of its best offensive numbers.

A record 11,283 points were scored in 2010 with games averaging 44.07 points, the highest average in 45 seasons.

The league set a record with 1,270 touchdowns.

Twenty-two quarterbacks threw for at least 3,000 yards.

Those numbers aren’t possible without a lot of talented players up front.

The Lions, too, benefited from good play from both of their tackles in 2010.

Jeff Backus cemented his status as one of the top 12 tackles in the game. Lions coach Jim Schwartz called his play “Pro Bowl worthy,” although Backus didn’t get the nod.

Backus has started every game (160) since he was drafted in 2001.

From the left side, he holds the mark for the most consecutive starts among active interior (offense and defense) linemen.

On the right side, third-year tackle Gosder Cherilus worked to improve his technique after the 2009 season, and showed improvement last year. His play cemented his status as the team’s starting right tackle, assuming offseason microfracture surgery doesn’t derail those plans.

Top 10 offensive tackles

 1. Jake Long, Miami: There are no weaknesses in his game. He’s 6 foot, 7 inches and 317 pounds with long arms and quick feet. That’s pretty much the definition of a Pro Bowl tackle. He was the third tackle drafted No. 1 overall and has started every game at left tackle since.

  2. Joe Thomas, Cleveland: Thomas is an inch shorter than Long, but just as much the athlete — he played tight end, kicker and punter in high school. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler, three-time all-pro and played every offensive snap as a rookie. He’s started every game (64) the past four seasons.

 3. Ryan Clady, Broncos: Clady was in the same draft class as Long (No. 12), and has blossomed into a terrific player. He finished third behind Matt Ryan and Chris Johnson for offensive rookie of the year honors, and set the NFL record for consecutive games to start a career without allowing a sack (20).

 4. Jordan Gross, Panthers: He was one of the few bright spots on a one-win team in 2010. He began his career in 2003 as a right tackle and switched to the left side in 2004. Gross recovered nicely from a broken ankle in 2009 to earn another Pro Bowl nod in 2010.

 5. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jets: Ferguson, a black belt in karate, is one of the best athletes at the position. He’s terrific one-on-one in pass protection and is a beast in the running game. He’s been a Pro Bowler the last two seasons.

 6. Michael Roos, Titans: Roos has been a stalwart for the Titans, starting every game of his career dating to 2005. Roos is as tough as they come and one of the reasons the Titans have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL.

 7. Matt Light, Patriots: The Patriots allowed the fourth-fewest sacks (25) and the third-fewest quarterback hits (52) in 2010. Like a good wine, Light has gotten better with age. He earned his third Pro Bowl appearance in 2010 after starting all 16 games.

 8. Jared Gaither, Ravens: No one on this list has persevered more than Gaither. Bad grades at Maryland forced him into the supplemental draft in 2007. He then had to take over for eventual Hall-of-Famer Jonathon Ogden. At 6-9 and 340, Gaither is the biggest tackle in the league.

 9. Marcus McNeill, Chargers: A contract dispute forced him to miss the first five games of last season. But when healthy and motivated, McNeill is one of the best. He helped the Chargers become the No. 1 offense last year.

 10. Donald Penn, Buccaneers: He went from undrafted rookie free agent out of Utah State in 2006 to the starting left tackle on one of the league’s rising young offenses. Penn earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2010.

Schedule

June 22 Quarterbacks

June 23 Running backs

June 24 Receivers

June 25 Tight ends

Today Offensive tackles

Tuesday Guards

Wednesday Centers

Thursday Safeties

Friday Cornerbacks

Saturday Outside linebackers

Monday, July 4 Inside linebackers

Tuesday, July 5 Defensive ends

Wednesday, July 6 Def. tackles

ttwentyman@detnews.com

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