NFC South: Jonathan Ogden

Power Rankings Left TacklesESPN.com IllustrationOur bloggers say Joe Thomas and Jake Long are the NFL's best left tackles by a wide margin.
ESPN.com ranks the NFL’s top 10 at left tackle, one of the most important positions in the league. Next week: Top up-and-coming assistants.

Take a quarter out of your pocket and look at its width. That’s basically the difference between the top two left tackles in the ESPN.com Power Rankings.

Cleveland’s Joe Thomas received 76 points from our eight-person panel of voters. Miami’s Jake Long received 75. That put them way ahead of the rest of our top 10 list of the NFL's best blindside pass protectors.

Our panel of division bloggers gave Thomas five first-place votes, and Long received three.

“It was pretty much a coin flip for me,’’ said NFC East blogger Dan Graziano.

If Graziano’s quarter had landed on the other side, we might have had a different outcome. I think the same can be said for some of the other voters. I gave Thomas my top vote only after some strong consideration for Long.

But let’s cut to the chase and point out the man who ultimately decided this election. It’s AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky. Every other voter had Thomas and Long in the top two spots. Kuharsky threw things off a bit by putting Long at No. 1 and Tennessee’s Michael Roos at No. 2. He had Thomas at No. 3.

Let’s turn to Kuharsky for his rationale.

“I've seen Long more, which helped him,’’ Kuharsky said. “Also, frankly, I knew there could be close to a consensus for Thomas. He's very good. But we're not talking Orlando Pace or Jonathan Ogden. The groundswell for Thomas as top left tackle is, in my eyes, more a media creation than the view of players, scouts and coaches. I wanted to note and reflect that.’’

Point taken, and I agree that we’re not talking the same level as Pace and Ogden -- at least not yet. Thomas and Long are young and it’s too early to put them in the category of surefire Hall of Famers. But, aided largely by Kuharsky, Roos did finish No. 6 overall.

Ryan Clady, Jordan Gross and D'Brickashaw Ferguson rounded out our top five at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 respectively. After Roos, the rest of the top 10 was filled out by Jason Peters (No. 7), Marcus McNeill and Donald Penn, who tied for No. 8, and Matt Light at No. 10.

Let’s work our way back toward the top, with one more quick stop at Roos. I had him at No. 8 on my ballot, and James Walker and Kevin Seifert didn’t even vote for him. I’ve had a couple of scouts tell me Roos is a good left tackle, but seemed to take a step backward last season.

Kuharsky heard otherwise.

“I've had a coach and two scouts tell me Roos is as good or better than Thomas and Long,’’ Kuharsky said. “I obviously see Roos a lot and think he's quite good, certainly better than he wound up here.’’

Roos or ruse? Take your pick, but let’s head right back to the top of the voting and back to the argument between Thomas and Long. They were drafted one year apart with Thomas entering the league in 2007 and Long coming in for the 2008 season. Each has made it to the Pro Bowl in every season played.

Kuharsky mentioned the “media creation’’ about Thomas. In Cleveland? That’s not where you usually turn to find guys to top Power Rankings, so our vote has to say something pretty strong about Thomas. Let’s turn to the guy who covers Thomas.

"Thomas has always been focused on doing his job,’’ Walker said. “You can't tell whether the Browns are 16-0 or 0-16 with the way he plays, and that's why he's been to four straight Pro Bowls. The NFL has gone the way of speed pass-rushers, and Thomas is the prototype to combat that. He’s lean with very good feet and agility, but still strong enough to dominate in the running game. There’s really no weakness in his game.”

None of our panelists saw a weakness in Long’s game.

“I thought Long's run-blocking ability put him a little bit ahead of Thomas,’’ Grazianzo said. “I think he's shown improvement every year and is likely to pass Thomas soon if he hasn't already (and for me, these lists are about which guy I'd pick right now, so a guy I think is going to get better is going to get a long look from me). And he earned a bonus point or two from me for playing the last six games of 2010 in a shoulder harness and still being incredible.’’

The best news is, these guys are so young we can have this same argument every year for the next decade. Now, let’s move on to some other notes about the voting in the Power Rankings for left tackles.

Turn off the Light. As we mentioned, Light came in at No. 10. That surprised me a bit because he’s a big name with three Super Bowl championships and three Pro Bowl selections. I had Light at No. 6 and Walker had him at No. 4. But Light didn’t even appear on four ballots, including the one from AFC East representative Tim Graham.

“Matt Light is a quality player, but Stats Inc. blamed him for 10 sacks allowed and four penalties last season, more in each category than his previous two seasons combined,’’ Graham said. “I've always thought Light got more recognition simply from being Tom Brady's left tackle. Once you name the three or four elite tackles and you rack your brain for the next group, it's easy to understand people sorting through the great quarterbacks and asking, 'Who is so-and-so's left tackle?' Light made the Pro Bowl last year, but as an alternate. Light's reputation also is enhanced by his involvement in the union and being a truly rare species: the gregarious Patriot.’’

Also-rans. Andrew Whitworth, Chad Clifton, Doug Free, Russell Okung and Jeff Backus didn’t make the top 10, but each received votes.

“I don't think there are 10 elite or even complete left tackles in the NFL,’’ NFC West blogger Mike Sando said. “I list Okung on a very short list of players with the talent and makeup to be elite at that position. Okung hasn't played enough to this point, but I think he'll join that group this season. Listing someone with considerably less ability was the alternative.’’

The longest shot. Somewhere, former Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden are smiling at Penn’s name appearing on this list. It’s true, they headed the regime that signed Penn as a free agent in 2007 after he was cut by Minnesota in 2006. Then again, they were also the ones who signed Luke Petitgout, and Penn only got a chance to play because Petitgout turned out to be washed up. I used to subscribe to the theory that you needed to use a first-round pick to get a good left tackle. But Penn has shown that’s not necessary. In his case, he simply made the most of his shot at playing time and turned it into a $48 million contract as training camp started last year.

He was an offensive lineman, which means statistical numbers can’t tell the whole story. So how do we know Willie Roaf should be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans Saints tackle Willie Roaf
US PRESSWIREWillie Roaf was named All-Pro seven times and was an 11-time Pro Bowl pick in 13 seasons.
It’s simple really. You compare him to the best offensive linemen ever. If he stacks up, he gets in. If he doesn’t have the résumé, he doesn’t get in.

I’ll make the case right now that Roaf’s résumé is sparkling and he should be elected Saturday when voters in Texas see his name as a finalist in the first year he’s eligible. I’ve been in that election room before and I know there will be some critics that will say Roaf, who spent most of his career with the New Orleans Saints and finished it with the Kansas City Chiefs, doesn’t have any Super Bowl rings and that he didn’t play on a lot of great teams.

So what? The thing that really matters is that Roaf was among the best ever at what he did. Off the top of your head, who’s the best offensive tackle ever? I’m guessing a lot of people will say Anthony Munoz, who was inducted into the shrine in Canton, Ohio in 1998. Some younger people might argue for Baltimore’s Jonathan Ogden, who won’t be eligible for election until 2013.

The reality is Roaf is right there with them in every way you can measure an offensive tackle. In his 13-year career, Roaf made the Pro Bowl 11 times. That’s the same number of Pro Bowl berths Munoz and Odgen had. No offensive tackle has made the Pro Bowl as many times as Roaf, Munoz and Ogden.

Another good measuring stick is to see if a guy has made an all-decade team because that means he was the best at his position for at least most of a decade. Well, Roaf did that -- twice. He was selected to the all-decade team for the 1990s and the 2000s.

Roaf was durable and dominant and that means he’s deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame. Last year, Rickey Jackson became the first New Orleans player elected to the Hall of Fame on the day before the Saints won the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

There will be no repeat on Sunday since the Saints were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. But there should be a repeat Saturday and the Saints should have their second Hall of Famer.

“William Roaf was one of the greatest players in our franchise’s history,’’ Saints owner Tom Benson said. “He’s one of the greatest players to ever play his position and someone that myself and our fans have a great appreciation for. Hopefully, William will have the opportunity to join Rickey Jackson in Canton this summer.”

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Our all-decade offense has been revealed and there's not one true NFC South player on it.

Sure, tight end Tony Gonzalez is now with Atlanta, but he's spent the entire decade up to now with Kansas City. You could also make a claim to fullback Lorenzo Neal, who spent a couple of years with Tampa Bay, but that was back in the 1990s.

I'm looking around for oversights, but not truly seeing any. You could start to make an argument for Drew Brees, but that ends once you realize that Tom Brady, who made the team, and Peyton Manning, who did not, are ahead of him.

What about Carolina's Jordan Gross? He might be the best offensive tackle in the league right now, but you can't really argue that he was better than Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden over the course of the decade.

Or Carolina's Steve Smith? Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt, who made the list, each won Super Bowls and that speaks for itself. Randy Moss and Terrell Owens didn't make the list and you can make an argument for either one. But I'd put Smith right there with Moss and over Owens.

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