With the Lockout still lingering (though we have increasing hope for an end to it all) people are turning to anything to try and feed their football hunger. There have been lists aplenty this offseason, and ESPN did a nice rundown of the Top 10 players in the league by position. They recently published their list of the Top 10 left tackles, which made for some interesting reading and left this analyst with a bone to pick.
I’m sure if you asked most people to list their Top 10 left tackles, the first two names would be the same (in whatever order) for almost all of them. Joe Thomas and Jake Long are clearly the class of the league at the position, but after those two guys, everybody seems to wander. Their wayward paths takes them to several names: Ryan Clady, Jordan Gross, Michael Roos, but nobody ever seems to wind up at the name of a player who may very well claim that next spot: Andrew Whitworth.
In 2008, our first complete year of analysis at PFF, Whitworth wasn’t even a left tackle yet. Drafted out of LSU in the 2006 draft, the second round pick had played at both left guard and tackle for the Bengals early in his career, filling in for injured players at both positions. In 2008, he was back at guard, starting 10 games there, grading out almost exactly average across the board. It took some imagination to look at that player and envision a top left tackle. The Bengals however, thought enough of Whitworth to give him a significant contract extension before the start of the 2008 season.
When the Levi Jones era ended on the blindside for Cincinnati, Whitworth made the move outside, and he has responded to the challenge with an ever improving game at one of the toughest spots in football.
In 2009, Whitworth started all 16 games at left tackle, and was graded as our 5th best LT (7th best counting part-season starters Jared Gaither and Sebastian Vollmer). He was effective as both a run blocker and as a pass protector (grading as our 5th best LT in pass protection), with one small caveat: penalties.
Though he graded well in pass protection, and allowed just 25 total pressures over 17 games – or pressure in just 4.2% of his pass blocking snaps – Whitworth’s penalties do hint at a player struggling to come to terms with an unfamiliar pass blocking role out on that edge. Only Alex Barron (who has been given the nickname ‘False Start’ in the past) had more penalties than the 13 Whitworth was flagged for in 2009, and at least 10 of those 13 flags point directly to pass protection (4 x False Start, 5 x Holding, and 2 x Illegal Formation, lining up too far off the line of scrimmage, anticipating the edge rush). While it’s certainly accurate to say that he had a good season, even as a pass protector in 2009, that must be reined in, or at least put in the context of the penalties he gave away in that aspect of the game.
Last year was his second full season starting at left tackle, and as you would reasonably expect, it was a much better year than his first season there. He again started all 16 games, and this time edged out Jake Long by just 0.3 to top our OT rankings with a PFF grade of +24.6 for the year. His pass blocking grade was also an improvement on 2009, and this time without the major caveat of penalties. Though he was flagged seven times on the season, and they were for similar offenses in similar proportions to ’09, he has halved the rate in which he gets penalized. 2009 saw a flag thrown on 2.2% of his plays in pass protection, that rate was down to 1.1% last year.
His performance protecting Carson Palmer’s blindside was good enough to see him rank second only to Jake Long in our Pass Blocking Efficiency study, and he ended the year with five perfect games in pass protection (surrendering no pressure), four of which came in the final six weeks.
Ready to challenge
Whitworth has the size and strength to dominate at the point of attack, and whether he was playing guard or tackle, he has always had the ability to move people in the run game. Since being kicked outside to protect on the left, he has improved his pass protection skills, and reduced both the mistakes and penalties he makes. The worrying part for the rest of the league is his performance arc may not be bending toward level yet, and Whitworth still has room to improve. While Long has been consistently impressive since he came into the league, Whitworth has only been getting better since he made the position switch, and a third season in that spot could see him rise to challenge the likes of Long and Thomas at the pinnacle.
Whether he does or doesn’t manage to take that next step, there is more than enough on tape already for me to ask the question – how far down a Top 10 list can you realistically let him slide?
If we assume that Joe Thomas and Jake Long are 1-2 in any Top 10 LT list you want to make, Andrew Whitworth going into the 2011 season has made as strong a case as anybody to be the next player in that list.
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