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Ranking the OT tandems the Patriots’ pass rushers will face in 2017

Positional Rankings Series: The Patriots’ 2017 opponents — tackles.

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NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the thirteen teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.

Have you missed a position in this series? Catch up here:

Defense: Int. DL Edge DefendersLinebackersSafetiesCornerbacks

Offense: Int. OL — Tackles — Tight Ends — Running Backs — Wide Receivers — Quarterbacks

The Patriots’ biggest deficiency on defense, at least on paper, appears to be in the edge rushing department. Lucky for them, the crop of tackles they’ll face in 2017 aren’t nearly as competent as their colleagues on the interior.

Here’s where each of those thirteen tackle units rank.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

After earning the top spot in this series’ interior offensive line rankings, Pittsburgh's tackles keep pace with their brethren on the inside. Veteran Marcus Gilbert has been a stalwart at right tackle for years, and Alejandro Villanueva, appears to be Pittsburgh’s answer at left tackle after a strong 2016 season. Villanueva’s contract situation is certainly something to monitor, as he has reportedly shown displeasure already with having to play this season on a $615,000 exclusive rights free agent tender. Another strong effort in 2017 will certainly earn Villanueva a first round restricted free agent tender, which is projected to be just over $4 million.

2. Atlanta Falcons

Jake Matthews and 2016 contract extension recipient Ryan Schraeder earn the penultimate ranking on this list after finishing last season behind Pittsburgh’s duo in every DVOA offensive line metric. However, the gap between the two talented tandems is much smaller than the one between Atlanta and this list’s third ranked unit.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Andy Reid’s bookends continue a trend of right tackle-dominant groups. Mitchell Schwartz, who signed to a five-year, $33 million contract last offseason, has developed into one of the league’s top right tackles. Since being selected by Cleveland in the second round of the 2012 draft, Schwartz hasn’t missed a single snap in his eighty career NFL starts. Eric Fisher, a former number one overall draft pick, has proven himself serviceable over the past two seasons since moving to left tackle in the wake of Branden Albert’s departure.

4. Oakland Raiders

Veteran Donald Penn added another excellent season to his resume in 2016, but questions regarding Oakland’s starting right tackle spot are still unanswered. Austin Howard and Marshall Newhouse will battle for the role in training camp.

5. Houston Texans

Left tackle Duane Brown is likely the best player at the position the Patriots will face in 2017. However, like the Raiders, the right tackle spot is still up for grabs. Former Jet Breno Giacomini, fourth-round rookie Julien Davenport, and cancer-survivor David Quessenberry should all vie for the gig in two weeks when training camp commences.

6. New Orleans Saints

A season-ending shoulder injury to talented left tackle Terron Armstead keeps this unit from the top ranking on this list. It remains to be see whether his role will be filled by Andrus Peat, who shifted over from left guard in 2016 when Armstead missed time, or first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin. Veteran Zach Strief continues to man the right tackle spot impressively.

7. Buffalo Bills

Solid yet unspectacular left tackle Cordy Glenn returns on the second year of the contract he signed in 2016 that currently makes him the league’s seventh highest paid player in the position based on average annual value. Second-round rookie Dion Dawkins is the projected starter at right tackle.

8. Los Angeles Chargers

Russell Okung may never return to the form of 2012 or 2013, but the high-priced veteran is healthy heading into 2017 and will be counted on to provide stability to an offensive line that projects to have two rookies starting in the guard spots. Right tackle Joe Barksdale looks to rebound after a rough 2016.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2015 second-round pick Donovan Smith will get his third, and likely final, opportunity to prove to the organization that he’s their long-term answer at left tackle. Solid veteran right tackle Demar Dotson mans the right tackle spot again in 2017.

10. Miami Dolphins

Former first-round pick Ja’Wuan James has developed into a solid right tackle, but this unit’s ranking is diminished given the uncertainty of how Laremy Tunsil will adjust to his anticipated transition to left tackle in 2017.

11. Carolina Panthers

Matt Khalil’s five-year $55 million contract from the Panthers this offseason is a true indication of just how incredibly valuable it is to be a free agent left tackle in the NFL these days — regardless of your production. Kalil’s play in the first two weeks of the 2016 season was so poor that when the Vikings placed him on IR it seemed like a kindness. It isn’t yet known if Michael Oher will return this year, or at all, from a severe concussion he sustained last year. Western Michigan rookie Taylor Moton may be called upon to start at right tackle.

12. New York Jets

Kelvin Beachum’s 2016 season in Jacksonville was a disaster, as he surrendered forty-nine quarterback pressures. There’s no reason to believe his performance will improve on the talented-depleted Jets offense in 2017. It doesn’t get much better at right tackle, as four-year man Ben Ijalana projects to be the starter once again.

13. Denver Broncos

First-round pick Garett Bolles is the only hope for this unit in 2017. If he is unable to beat out Donald Stephenson in camp, it will be a long year in the Mile High City. Stephenson was literally the worst player in the National Football League a season ago. Sub-par right tackle Menelik Watson was signed from Oakland in the offseason to solidify the right tackle spot.

How would you rank these units?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP