COMMENTARY | They're certainly not the most glamorous players on the field and when you hear their name, it's generally for something negative. But offensive tackles are some of the most important players on the team. Without anchors on the edges of the line, it becomes very hard to pass in this league.
Just ask the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has had one of the worst rated offensive lines in the game over the last few seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers ranked 25th in the league in terms of offensive lines in 2012. Pro Football Outsiders rated them 27th. Needless to say, there's a ton of room for improvement.
Veteran left tackle Max Starks was let go in free agency, paving the way for a pair of youngsters to occupy the edges. The oft-injured Marcus Gilbert (14 games missed in two seasons) will hold down the left side and replace Starks, while big, mauling Mike Adams will find a home on the right side.
Pittsburgh added former Jaguar Guy Whimper for depth and took in rookie UDFA Mike Golic Jr for help, but currently, this crew lacks depth.
The team with possibly the best tackle situation in the division is the Cincinnati Bengals. They'll enter 2013 sporting one of the most underrated left tackles in the game in Andrew Whitworth, and the newly-paid Andre Smith on the right side.
This duo has done a great job protecting Andy Dalton over his first few seasons in the NFL. Although they're rarely discussed amongst the best lines in football, Pro Football Focus ranked the Bengals 2nd in pass blocking last season, allowing a sack on only six-percent of dropbacks.
The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens have a tackle situation that's a bit up in the air right now. It appears that the team will go with veteran Bryant McKinnie on the left side once again and will move Michael Oher back to the right. Jah Reid will serve as a backup to both.
Oher has been the team's most reliable tackle with McKinnie and Reid both suffering from injuries, but the team needs to make up their mind as to which side he'll play.
One of the best tackles in the NFL calls the AFC North home, as well as the city of Cleveland. Joe Thomas has been an absolute monster since he came into the league and is routinely ranked in the top three tackles by seasons' end. Pro Football Focus ranked Thomas as the league's most efficient pass blocker in 2012, allowing only 12 pressures in 426 dropbacks.
After Thomas, however, it gets a little murky. Mitchell Schwartz will most likely draw the start at right tackle, but Oniel Cousins could push for the job.
2013 AFC North Offensive Tackle Rankings
1. Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns - Hard to argue that Thomas isn't the best offensive tackle in the league. He's far-and-away the top tackle in the AFC North. The seven-year vet has plenty of time ahead of him.
2. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals - One of the most underrated offensive linemen in the game and a personal favorite of mine, Whitworth has been a force for the Bengals. PFF ranked Whitworth fourth amongst linemen last season, allowing only 14 pressures on the year.
3. Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals - Bengals fans should be ecstatic about their offensive tackle situation. It took the team a little to commit to Smith, given his history of weight issues, but it should pay off in the end.
4. Michael Oher, Baltimore Ravens - Everyone knows Oher's tremendous story and he has been a very solid player up front for the Ravens. But his biggest enemy right now is not really having a home at either tackle position. The Ravens should put him on a side and stick with it.
5. Mike Adams, Pittsburgh Steelers - A stunner at the bottom of the list, this spot came down to Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Bryant McKinnie. Gilbert can't stay healthy and McKinnie is getting up in years. Adams is arguably the best run-blocking tackle in the division. If he figures out the pass game, watch out.
Right now, the tackle position is a bit of an unknown for the Steelers. The 2013 season could really go one of two ways.
If Gilbert and Adams can both stay healthy and Adams can grow in the passing game, we could be looking at the start of something special in Pittsburgh. But those are big if's.
The Steelers are very young at the tackle position and lack depth behind two starters that have never played a full NFL season. That's not good news. Either Pittsburgh has a ton of faith in Adams and Gilbert, or they truly believe guys like Whimper, Golic and Farrell can step right in and play.
This is a position of interest for Steeler fans entering 2013. Keep an eye on this one.
Dan Snyder has been covering the Steelers for over a year for outlets such as the Bleacher Report. Check out more of his work there or follow him on Twitter @dsnyder34. Also, stay tuned for more installments of " Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the AFC North".
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- offensive tackle