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The NFC West left tackles are talented, injury-prone, old, and sometimes all three of those

Andrew Whitworth is as great as he is aged

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to tearing his MCL in Week 10 against the Seahawks last year, Andrew Whitworth was still considered one of the NFL’s premier left tackles. Here’s from Rams Wire in early October:

He’s been one of the best offensive tackles in football thus far, earning an overall grade of 88.9 with no sacks allowed and 268 snaps played. He’s been rock solid on the left side of the Rams’ offensive line, hardly ever allowing pressure on Jared Goff.

And from the Rams’ website in early November:

“I may not be the happiest Monday through Thursday, but you know what, I find a way to get up again by the weekend and get rolling,” Whitworth said during an early October video conference. “There’s the usual aches and pains of being 38 and trying to play football, but the body has felt good every single Sunday and has responded really well every Monday. I feel good about that.”

With his 218th start against the Bears, Whitworth moved past Mike Webster for 11th-most career starts by an offensive lineman in NFL history, per pro-football-reference.com. Now at 219 after last Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, if he starts each of the Rams’ remaining eight regular season games, he will pass former Falcons center Jeff Van Note (226) for seventh and move within one game of tying former Colts, Seahawks and Cowboys center Ray Donaldson (228) for sixth.

It was only 11 days later that Whitworth suffered his injury and he never got those starts that he needed to move up the list, though he did return in time for two playoff games and again defied the odds.

Now 39 — and turning 40 in December — Whitworth is back in Rams camp for a 16th NFL season. That’s good news, Los Angeles would have had a difficult time trying to replace him this offseason and the only notable left tackles to change teams were Orlando Brown and Eric Fisher. How would the Rams have acquired Brown in addition to their move to acquire Stafford? And Fisher might not even be a more desirable option than Joseph Noteboom.

Whitworth returns, and that’s the good news, but there’s no way to spin his age as a “Positive” and the rest of the division has also spent considerable financial and draft assets on the position too.

So as of 2021, where does Andrew Whitworth rank among the starting left tackles in the NFC West?

D.J. Humphries, Arizona Cardinals

The 24th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Humphries might enter Week 1 as the “least known left tackle in the NFC West” but by next year we could be universally referring to him as the best player at his position in the division.

Humphries has been somewhat forgotten because the first four years of his career were a near-total disaster (37 total games missed) but he hasn’t missed any time over the last two seasons and he’s played like one of the best left tackles in the NFL. Not just the NFC West. From a late-December article at the Cards website:

However, left tackle D.J. Humphries continued his stellar season by garnering the top Pro Football Focus grade on the team at 73.5. Humphries did not allow a sack or a pressure in the game, although he was beaten by a pass-rusher five times, per PFF.

His run-blocking grade of 73.9 was easily the best among the offensive linemen.

Humphries has the fifth-highest grade among NFL offensive tackles this season at 88.0, and he’s played the most snaps (1,076) among any player at the position. Durability is key in the NFL, as the dropoff from a star player to his backup can be substantial.

While Humphries didn’t end up making it to the Pro Bowl this season, the Cardinals boast an elite blindside protector for quarterback Kyler Murray, which is a critical component for any offense.

Now, I’m not endorsing any of the numbers in that quote that are sold as “grades” — it’s an unfortunate reality that when you’re quoting NFL articles about offensive linemen that writers will feel forced (or many people do want to use them) to include PFF grades because they don’t have any other obvious places to turn for evidentiary reinforcements — but I’m okay with premise that D.J. Humphries is massively underrated.

He’s also the youngest left tackle in the division by nearly six years.

Humphries hasn’t made a Pro Bowl yet — another number that writers will feel comfortable citing as proof of his value — and I think that will change soon. So long as Kyler Murray develops into a top-12 or top-6 quarterback, Humphries will get more attention too and he might even have an all-pro nod in his future.

It’s important to not get bogged down in the national perception and just because Humphries isn’t as “famous” as the other three tackles in the division, he’s much younger and he might have even had the best 2020 season of the four.

Trent Williams, 49ers

The second-youngest left tackle in the NFC West was drafted in 2010!

Williams turns 33 in July and it’s worth noting that his last 16-game season came in 2013. But Williams has missed games for more reasons than just injuries, though he does have issues with injuries. San Francisco just locked him up for another six years but these are the contract figures that matter most:

Williams is virtually guaranteed to be around through 2023 and his cap hits over the next three seasons are $8.1 million, $14.1 million, and $26.2 million, respectively. If the 49ers feel compelled to restructure him in 2023 to save cap space, it definitely locks him onto the roster in 2024, at which point his cap hit will be even higher than its current mark at $26.9 million.

The 49ers definitely feel that Williams is the best tackle in the division and they’re paying him like the best tackle in the NFL. He’s been that good before and he could be that good next season.

Keep in mind that the 49ers have this really odd theme of rostering players who have missed entire seasons recently. Williams sat out of all of 2019 because of a contract dispute with Washington and so he’s only played in 14 games over the last 2.5 years.

Duane Brown, Seahawks

A first round pick in 2008, Brown will turn 36 at the end of this year’s training camp. He played in all 16 games last season, but missed four games with knee and biceps injuries in 2019.

Brown said he was feeling great in 2020 and by most accounts, he played great too.

It’s evident this season that Brown did indeed get his body right. He has returned to being one of the most dominant left tackles in football.

According to Pro Football Focus, Brown is having one of his best seasons — his grade of 88.4 is the second-highest of his career (the only one higher came in 2012 when he earned first-team All-Pro honors). PFF this week named him to its NFC Pro Bowl team with Trent Williams of Washington and David Bakhtiari of Green Bay at tackle.

“He’s the heartbeat of the offensive line,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said of Brown.

Aside from writer Bob Condotta’s apparent error there about where Williams played last season, the focus on Brown’s play at left tackle was clear: he’s good.

Trent Williams, Andrew Whitworth, D.J. Humphries, and Duane Brown are all good. But two of them are well past typical retirement age, a third is barreling towards it, and all four have durability concerns for one reason or another.

Which team is best off at starting left tackle (ignoring the right side and ignoring the depth) and which team is the worst off? I could see an argument for any order.

Poll

Who is the best left tackle in the NFC West — as it pertains to the 2021 season only?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    Andrew Whitworth
    (265 votes)
  • 29%
    Trent Williams
    (125 votes)
  • 2%
    D.J. Humphries
    (11 votes)
  • 4%
    Duane Brown
    (21 votes)
422 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which team is worst off at left tackle entering the 2021 season?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    49ers
    (28 votes)
  • 33%
    Cardinals
    (105 votes)
  • 9%
    Rams
    (29 votes)
  • 49%
    Seahawks
    (156 votes)
318 votes total Vote Now