My team, the Green Bay Packers, is in dire need of a young left and a right tackle to stabilize our offensive line. Since GM Ted Thompson strongly prefers to acquire players through the draft, I set out to determine where the 32 present starters at left tackle came from in the NFL came from and in what round they were drafted. To gain an appreciation for which tackles were and are currently the best in the business, I decided to list the players from each conference that made the Pro Bowl in the 2000-2009 regular season (hence the 2001-2010 Pro Bowls) and figure out what rounds dominated the conversation. However, given the inherent flaws in the Pro Bowl, I also determined to find a football database that graded left tackles, see which tackles were graded the best over that same ten-year period and organize them by round.
My hypothesis heading into the project was that a clear majority of LTs currently active in the NFL would turn out to be former first-round picks. I further surmised that both the most effective tackles over the last ten years, and the majority of Pro Bowl tackles over that same period, would be first-rounders. The justification for this was my premise that first-round LTs are generally the only ones who possess a LT's unique skill set (size, bulk, quick feet, long arms, good punch, etc.) and thus would grade out the best over time. My object was to figure out what the Packers' odds are of getting a good left tackle in the upcoming draft, in which we pick 23rd and thus will likely miss the top prospects.
I began by simply taking a census of left tackles currently active in the NFL, at the end of the 2009 season. I went to each team’s website, found their depth chart and identified the starting tackles for every one. For teams that had had to replace their tackle during the season, I tracked down the originals and wrote their name and the word “Preferred” by the man.
Colts: Charlie Johnson (sixth)
Titans: Michael Roos (second)
Texans: Duane Brown (first)
Jaguars: Eugene Monroe (first)
Steelers: Max Starks (third)
Browns: Joe Thomas (first)
Ravens: Jared Gaither (fifth, supplemental)
Bengals: Andrew Whitworth (second)
Jets: D’Brickashaw Ferguson (first)
Patriots: Sebastian Vollmer (second) [Preferred: Matt Light, second]
Dolphins: Jake Long (first)
Bills: Jonathan Scott (fifth)
Chargers: Marcus McNeill (second)
Raiders: Mario Henderson (third)
Chiefs: Branden Albert (first)
Broncos: Ryan Clady (first)
Bears: Chris Williams/Orlando Pace (first, first)
Packers: Chad Clifton (second)
Lions: Jeff Backus (first)
Vikings: Bryant McKinnie (first)
49ers: Joe Staley (first)
Cardinals: Jeremy Bridges (sixth)
Rams: Alex Barron (first)
Seahawks: Sean Locklear (third) [Preferred: Walter Jones, first]
Cowboys: Flozell Adams (second)
Eagles: Jason Peters (undrafted)
Redskins: Levi Jones (first) [Preferred: Chris Samuels, first]
Giants: David Diehl (fifth)
Saints: Jermon Bushrod (fourth) [Preferred: Jammal Brown, first]
Buccaneers: Donald Penn (undrafted)
Panthers: Jeff Otah (first) [Preferred: Jordan Gross, first]
Falcons: Sam Baker (first)
The table reads as follows:
1st round: 15
When we add in the number of preferred starters, such as Seattle’s Walter Jones or New Orleans’ Jammal Brown that were placed on injured reserve during the season (since this data was gathered by going to each team’s Web page and looking at their depth chart), the total climbs to 18 first-round left tackles and 7 second-round picks. The argument is already taking shape that left tackles at the top of the draft are generally the only ones who can survive and flourish in the NFL because only they possess the rare combination of qualities that mark the position. However, merely saying that first-round physical talent enables players to lock down their spots proves nothing, least of all what makes the top left tackles. To get a better idea of who the best tackles have been over the past ten years, let’s have a look at who went to the Pro Bowl during that time.
“RT” denotes “right tackle”, and a running count of the number of berths filled is noted after each year. Teams are not noted.
2010: Joe Thomas (first), Ryan Clady (first), Jake Long (first), Jason Peters (undrafted), Bryant McKinnie (first), Jon Stinchcomb (first, RT). Total: five first, one undrafted.
2009: J. Thomas (first), Peters (undrafted), Samuels (first), Walter Jones (first), Michael Roos (second), Jordan Gross (first). Total: nine first, one second, two undrafted.
2008: Flozell Adams (second), Joe Thomas (first), Samuels (first), Peters (undrafted), Matt Light (second), Jones (first). Total: twelve first, three second, three undrafted.
2007: Jonathan Ogden (first), Jones (first), Flozell Adams (second), Jammal Brown (first), Willie Roaf (first), Willie Anderson (RT, first). Total: seventeen first, four second, three undrafted.
2006: Anderson (RT, first), Ogden (first), Tarik Glenn (first), Jones (first), Orlando Pace (first), Samuels (first). Total: twenty-three first, four second, three undrafted.
2005: Anderson (RT, first), Roaf (first), Pace (first), Tra Thomas (first), Ogden (first), Jones (first). Total: twenty-nine first, four second, three undrafted.
2004: Ogden (first), Roaf (first), Brad Hopkins (first), Adams (second), Pace (first), Jones (first). Total: thirty-four first, five second, three undrafted.
2003: Ogden (first), Roaf (first), Lincoln Kennedy (first, RT), Jones (first), T. Thomas (first), Pace (first). Total: forty first, five second, three undrafted.
2002: Kennedy (first, RT), Ogden (first), Jones (first), Pace (first), Samuels (first), James Williams (undrafted, RT). Total: forty-five first, five second, four undrafted.
2001: Ogden (first), Hopkins (first), Kennedy (first, RT), Pace (first), Roaf (first), Korey Stringer (first, RT). Total: fifty-one first-rounders, five second-rounders, four undrafted.
Total: 60 berths.
The numbers, as the viewer can see, are heavily skewed towards first-round picks. Of the 60 Pro Bowl berths to be filled from the 2000-2009 seasons and the 2001-2010 Pro Bowls, 44/50 (88%) were filled by first-rounders. When including right tackles, the numbers are 51/60 or 85%. Second-rounders make up 4/50 (8%) and 5/60 (8%), and the remaining 3/50 (6%) and 4/60 (7%) were undrafted players.
The number of players is also fairly telling:
Joe Thomas: 3 (first)
Ryan Clady: 1 (first)
Jake Long: 1 (first)
Jason Peters: 3 (undrafted)
Bryant McKinnie: 1 (first)
Jason Stinchcomb: 1 (RT) (first)
Flozell Adams: 3 (second)
Chris Samuels: 4 (first)
Matt Light: 1 (second)
Walter Jones: 8 (first)
Michael Roos: 1 (second)
Jordan Gross: 1 (first)
Jonathan Ogden: 7 (first)
Jammal Brown: 1 (first)
Willie Roaf: 5 (first)
Willie Anderson: 3 (RT) (first)
Tarik Glenn: 1 (first)
Orlando Pace: 6 (first)
Brad Hopkins: 2 (first)
Lincoln Kennedy: 3 (RT) (first)
Tra Thomas: 2 (first)
Jamie Williams: 1 (RT) (undrafted)
Korey Stringer: 1 (first)
One trap to fall into when looking at this data would be to assume that the data is skewed towards first-rounders because several of the all-time great left tackles were playing in this decade. Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Willie Roaf and Jonathan Ogden accounted for 26/60, or 43%, of available Pro Bowl berths in this time between the four of them, but the rest of the berths were also generally filled by fellow first-rounders. Of the 23 tackles listed (left and right), 18 were first-round picks. Three were second-rounders and two undrafted. Among the 18 left tackles, 14 were first-rounders, three were second-rounders and one was undrafted. No matter how you slice it, by number or by berths, first-round draft picks dominate the conversation among Pro Bowlers in the last ten years.
However, having Pro Bowl data is not enough. I wanted to go back and rank the top three tackles for each year in the study and see how they correlated with the Pro Bowl data, as well as how many first-rounders were contained in the top ten. This would also serve as a critique on the Pro Bowl and a way to see whether the best tackles in a given year were actually the ones selected. The only website I was able to find that gives comprehensive grades for all offensive tackles was profootballfocus.com, a site that claims to analyze every play for every given year and provide overall rankings of every player at that position in the NFL. I ended up ranking the top left tackles in two categories: their overall ranking on the site and their pass-blocking rating.
The only problem was that profootballfocus.com only had data for the 2008 and 2009 seasons, so my data comes exclusively from the period after which most of the great left tackles had retired, and a new breed of tackles had entered the fray. This lends added weight to the argument that, even without the several great left tackles skewing the results, first-round LTs still dominate the position.
Among pure LTs, defined here as those who started a majority of their games at LT in the 2009 NFL season:
-16 starts unless otherwise noted
-PB denotes a Pro Bowl berth
1. Joe Thomas, CLE (First) PB
2. Jake Long, MIA (First) PB
3. Sebastian Vollmer, NE (Second) Eight games at LT, four at RT.
4. Jared Gaither, BAL (Supplemental) 11 games.
5. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, NYJ (First)
6. Jeff Backus, DET (First)
7. Andrew Whitworth, CIN (Second)
8. Ryan Clady, DEN (First) PB
9. Jordan Gross, CAR (First)
10. Jason Peters, PHI (Undrafted) PB
1. Jake Long (first) PB
2. Joe Thomas (first) PB
3. Jared Gaither (supplemental)
4. Jason Peters (undrafted) PB
5. Andrew Whitworth (second)
6. D’Brickashaw Ferguson (first)
7. Sebastian Vollmer (second)
8. Jeff Backus (first)
9. Ryan Clady (first) PB
10. Chad Clifton (second)
The 2009 PFF results coincide pleasingly with the Pro Bowlers of the year, reaffirming (to my surprise) that the Pro Bowl often does get more or less the right players right. As the reader may have expected, six of the top ten overall tackles are first-rounders, and two more are second-rounders. The pass-blocking numbers are five and three respectively. Bryant McKinnie is not represented, ranking 33rd overall and 19th in pass-blocking, as he gave up the second-most sacks among LTs at nine. The other Pro Bowler, Jon Stinchcomb, is of course a right tackle.
The 2008 edition:
1. Matt Light (second)
2. Michael Roos (second) PB
3. D’Brickashaw Ferguson (first)
4. Joe Thomas (first) PB
5. Jake Long (first)
6. Jared Gaither (supplemental)
7. Walter Jones (first) (12 games) PB
8. Donald Penn (TB), undrafted
9. Mark LeVoir (New England, four games) undrafted. Excised for insufficient time.
9b. Bryant McKinnie (first)
10. Chris Samuels (first). PB
1. Michael Roos (second) PB
2. D’Brickashaw Ferguson (first)
3. Joe Thomas (first) PB
4. Jared Gaither (supplemental)
5. Jake Long (first)
6. Matt Light (second)
7. Walter Jones (first) PB
8. Bryant McKinnie (first)
9. Jordan Gross (first) PB
10. Tra Thomas (first)
Overall shows six firsts and two seconds; pass-blocking shows seven firsts and two seconds. Jason Peters (undrafted) is the only Pro Bowler who does not make an appearance.
Once again, first- and second-round picks show up as the best overall LTs and the best pass-blockers. My theory from the start of the project therefore remains, although slightly modified; LT prospects coming out of college who are sufficiently talented to be picked in the first round are generally the best tackles in the NFL. Tackles with the necessary skills (again, quick feet, height, weight and muscle, a good punch and so on) may occasionally drop to the early second round; Flozell Adams of the Cowboys, Michael Roos of the Titans and Matt Light of the Patriots were picked 38th, 41st and 48th respectively. However, tackles picked in later rounds simply do not have the physical tools to play LT at the highest level. Not a single third-to seventh-round tackle, left or right, has made the Pro Bowl in the past ten years. None were evident in the PFF rankings, either.
The sole problem with this conclusion presented by the data is the presence of undrafted players that nevertheless play left tackle at the highest level. Jason Peters and Jamie Williams made the Pro Bowl, and names such as Jared Gaither (supplemental draft) and Donald Penn are evident in the PFF rankings. The discerning reader may demand an explanation for this, but their concerns can easily be put to rest.
The simple answer is that not all prospects are created equal, and that players with the physical tools to play the position may fall out of consideration to be drafted because of other concerns. For example, Jared Gaither had academic problems at the University of Maryland and, instead of going back to school for another year, declared for the supplemental draft (thus falling out of what would’ve been serious consideration for a junior or senior year’s draft). Other players switched positions. Jason Peters never played a snap on the O-line in college, instead going undrafted as a tight end. Jamie Williams had both problems, coming from an obscure school as a defensive tackle, but eventually switched to right tackle.
So players with the physical tools to play LT can sometimes escape notice in the draft, beat the odds and start in the NFL at a high level, but their stories are as varied as they are unlikely. First- and second-round picks remain overwhelmingly the best option for NFL teams looking to secure their left tackle position. It should be noted that there is a measure of inflation in these numbers; given the pressing need for LTs in the NFL, LT prospects may be taken earlier then they otherwise would, but the dominance of first- and second-round picks is unchanged.
To return finally to the problems facing Ted Thompson, Chad Clifton (drafted in 2000 with the 44th pick) is in decline and at the end of his contract. Mark Tauscher, the longtime Green Bay right tackle who returned from ACL surgery halfway through the year to bail out Allen Barbre, is also not tenured for next year. Clifton is at present the best pass-blocker on the roster, backed up by promising guard/tackle T.J. Lang and guard Daryn Colledge. Based on the historical data, the Packers have a deep and serious need to draft a LT in the first or second rounds of the draft as a designated successor to Clifton, who will likely return on a one-year contract so the Packers can groom the eventual draft pick. Vladimir Ducasse is being bandied around as a legitimate second-round pick for the Pack, as is Charles Brown in the first. I’ll be studying LT prospects more in the coming weeks, but right now all I can say is this: short of scouting out a Jason Peters-type gem, the Packers absolutely must draft a LT in the first or second round. Attempts to fill the position in later rounds statistically will not work.
Edit: After a comment by Jersey Al, I decided to go through and see where each of the first-round offensive tackles that I mentioned were actually picked in the first round.
Joe Thomas: 3rd overall. Ryan Clady: 12th overall. Jake Long: 1st overall. Bryant McKinnie: 7th overall. Chris Samuels: 3rd. Walter Jones: 6th. Jordan Gross: 8th. Jonathan Ogden: 4th. Jammal Brown: 13th. Willie Roaf: 8th. Wilie Anderson: 10th. Tarik Glenn: 19th. Orlando Pace: 1st. Brad Hopkins: 13th. Lincoln Kennedy: 9th. Tra Thomas: 11th. Korey Stringer: 24th.
I guess historically, I was wrong in my original conclusion that the Packers must draft a LT prospect at No. 23. Only two of the tackles listed were picked lower then No. 13, and they attended just one Pro Bowl apiece in the time I surveyed.
One explanation for this trend might be that the top prospects are taken extremely high in the draft and tend to fly off the board very quickly; last year's top three prospects in Jason Smith, Andre Smith and Eugene Monroe all vanished within the first eight picks. So after the teams with major needs have filled them, teams who still need a LT but are now without a top prospect on the board can either overreach for a player or wait until the second round. That would explain the relatively large number of tackles picked in the early second round. I would guess that the top prospects only rarely make it down to No. 23 on the list, which is why we see so few of them in the Pro Bowl data.