Outside of quarterback, offensive tackle is arguably the most important position on offense — particularly left tackle. They’re tasked with blocking for and protecting each team’s most valuable player on each and every offensive play, which can be daunting with today’s freakishly athletic pass rushers. Not to mention they have to possess the athleticism and smarts to open up big lanes for their running backs against guys like J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn.
Left tackle is obviously the more "glamorous" position than right tackle, given the responsibility of protecting the quarterback’s blindside and typically blocking against a team’s best pass rusher, but those on the right side are plenty important. With that said, let’s take a look at the best offensive tackles in the NFL for the 2016 season, led by a veteran who’s never missed a game.
Not much has gone right for the Browns over the last decade. The one consistent and reliable player they’ve had on the roster is Joe Thomas. He’s been at left tackle through thick and thin and remains the best offensive tackle in all of football. Not only has he played all 144 games in his nine-year career thus far, but he’s the only lineman ever to make nine straight Pro Bowls to start his career. Additionally, he’s a six-time first-team All-Pro. There may not be a more consistent player in the NFL, regardless of position. Thomas excels in both pass protection and run blocking, though he’s slightly better in the former. And he’s had to be, given the fact that he’s blocked for 16 different quarterbacks in his career. He was the best lineman in the NFL last season, and he’ll likely be the same in 2016 blocking for Robert Griffin III … probably.
Tyron Smith doesn’t have the experience that Thomas has, but he’s a close second as the best tackle in the league. And at the age of 25, his best years are to come. That’s not to say he isn’t already great, of course. In five seasons, he’s missed just one game and has made three Pro Bowls, while also being named first-team All-Pro once. The 2015 season was a bit rough for him as he showed signs of being less than dominant, particularly with Olivier Vernon rushing against him. Unfortunately for Smith, Vernon is in the NFC East now after signing a massive contract with the Giants. In run blocking, Smith has unmatched athleticism for a man his size as he’s able to get out in front of running backs and block defenders in the second level. He has the potential to be one of the best left tackles ever.
For one reason or another, the Redskins flew somewhat under the radar in the NFC last season. That’s probably because of the fact that they won the putrid NFC East with a 9-7 record, but there was some real talent on the roster. Trent Williams in particular had himself a great season, though it wasn’t even his best. Williams helped lead an offensive line that allowed just 24 sacks, which was sixth-best in the league. He earned himself a Pro Bowl bid, his fourth straight and was named a second-team All-Pro. Williams is an outstanding run blocker despite the Redskins’ rushing attack struggling last season. With another year of experience under his belt, Williams will continue to get better and should be a Pro Bowler for years to come.
Andrew Whitworth has been in the league for a while, but only of late has he been recognized as a truly great lineman. In 2010, he was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time, which he also earned in 2014 and 2015. The Bengals only allowed 32 sacks last season, which was tied for 10th best in the NFL. Whitworth played a big role in that, as he did in opening up running lanes for Cincinnati’s running backs. Only 17 times did opposing pass rushers get pressure on the quarterback when going up against Whitworth, according to Pro Football Focus. Playing for the Bengals, Whitworth doesn’t get the attention that Smith and Williams get, but he’s every bit as good as the top tackles in football.
The first right tackle on the list, Ryan Schraeder was the best at his position last season. The 2013 undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State didn’t make the Pro Bowl for some reason in 2015, but he was a first-team All-Pro, and deservingly so. He only allowed two sacks and two quarterback hits all season, per PFF, and was the seventh-rated tackle. One of the few rough outings for Schraeder came against J.J. Watt, because who doesn’t struggle against him? He played admirably all season and has made teams across the league regret letting him slip through their fingers in the draft a few years ago. He’ll remain the team’s starting right tackle in 2016 and should thrive once again.
Since becoming the full-time starter in 2014, Terron Armstead has risen quickly in the ranks as one of the better tackles in the league. A third-round pick in 2013, Armstead’s athleticism has never been a question — he ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the combine. There were doubts about his footwork and ability to pass block in the NFL. Clearly, he’s proven those doubters wrong and has turned into a real steal for the Saints at this point in his career. If he can improve as a pass-blocker, he’ll continue to improve as a lineman overall. Having a consistent player to block Drew Brees’ blindside is key to extending his career in New Orleans, and that’s what Armstead is helping to do.
The 49ers’ offensive line as a whole was poor in 2015, allowing 53 sacks. That number was the second most in the NFL, but it wasn’t because of the play of Joe Staley. The veteran left tackle made his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, once again playing all 16 games, which he’s done in all but two seasons in his career. He’s been one of the most consistent and reliable players in San Francisco since he came into the league in 2007, and he’ll continue to be such in 2016. Whether it’s Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick starting at quarterback, their blind side will be protected. That alone will improve whatever quarterback play the 49ers get next season. Staley has been a solid starting left tackle, even when having to block for a scrambling quarterback like Kaepernick. That’s particularly challenging because he’s forced to stay on his blocks even longer and move his feet more to account for Kaepernick escaping the pocket.
The Raiders improved in several ways last season, particularly on offense. Derek Carr had a breakout-type season with 32 touchdowns and 3,987 yards, but he wasn’t the only great offensive player. Donald Penn was also a stud. In his second season with the Raiders, he once again started all 16 games, which he’s done in each of the past eight years. Oakland was middle of the road as far as sacks go, allowing 33, which was the 18th most in the league. But Penn was arguably the best lineman on the roster next to Gabe Jackson. He was one of many Pro Bowl snubs in 2015 and has only made it in 2010, but a trip to the game should be very viable next season.
As evidenced by this list, the Browns had two stud offensive linemen in 2015. Mitchell Schwartz, the right tackle who’s now with the Chiefs, signed a five-year deal worth $33 million. A big reason why Kansas City inked him to that deal is because of a guy that will be lining up across from him for two games a year: Von Miller. The Chiefs needed to sign a talented right tackle to solidify that side of the line, and that’s exactly what they did. Cleveland allowed the second-most sacks last season (53), but that was due to poor interior offensive line play. Playing in Kansas City this season, Schwartz should have a good chance to make his first Pro Bowl after missing out in his first four seasons. He’ll pair nicely with Eric Fisher as bookend tackles.
Jason Peters has never been the best pass-blocking left tackle in the NFL, but he’s more than a handful when blocking for his running backs. At 6-foot-4, 328 pounds, Peters isn’t the tallest tackle in the league, but he has the size, strength and athleticism to move linebackers downfield and push defensive lineman off the ball. He earned his third straight Pro Bowl selection and the eighth of his career, which will be nine after next season. If he can avoid injuries, which he suffered from in 2015, he’ll once again be among the best left tackles in the season in 2016. The Eagles need to appreciate Peters while they have him because he’s truly one of the best players on the roster and may not be in the league much longer as he’s 34 years old.