Pace, Jones among best left tackles in NFL By Greg Bishop
Seattle Times staff reporter




KIRKLAND They were baking in the Hawaii heat and basking in the Pro Bowl props, just two of the top left tackles in the NFL talking about their families and football and those pesky franchise tags.

Walter Jones and Orlando Pace were smiling. Both could sense another vacation lay ahead. They weren't sure, but maybe sometime in August?

That franchise tag has become a regular training-camp trump card for two giants paid to be big and strong and make sure the quarterback doesn't get knocked out by someone he cannot see. They are his vitamins, essential to his health, his protectors, essential to his safety. They are the most important cog in his only line of defense.

And when they're good and these two, who both play in Seattle tomorrow when the Seahawks host the St. Louis Rams, are considered among the best in the NFL they are paid handsomely in one of two ways. By putting their signature on a franchise tender or a long-term contract.

Both are searching for the latter. But in the meantime, they can skip camp, report the first week of the season, not lose any money and still make more than almost any other teammate. Jones signed a one-year contract for $7.08 million, and Pace signed for $7.02 million.

"I guess that says it's a valuable position," Jones said.

"To me, that says that other than the quarterback, the most valuable position on any football team is left tackle," said Mark Schlereth, an ESPN analyst and former lineman. "Just look at the franchise list. You've got your left tackles and your cover cornerbacks, for the most part.

"And those guys, guys like Jones and Pace, are so few and far between. That's why they can do what they can do."

Skip training camp that so many of their teammates dread. They're that valuable, that important, that vital to offensive success.

Schlereth should know. He watches offensive linemen the way most people watch the football, and when he's not analyzing, he's making instructional tapes for his Web site, onlineskills.com.

*He watches Jones. He watches Pace. And he sees two big men with nimble feet like a ballerina, best compared to Shaquille O'Neal or an unusual car hybrid.

"It's the power of a Hummer with the maneuverability of a Ferrari," Schlereth said. "People don't understand that any lineman worth his salt could play an entire game without shoulder pads. It's about athleticism and recovery. That's what the great ones do. It's what separates them from the also-rans."

You don't have to look far to find the proof. The first five words in Pace's media-guide biography are "best left tackle in football."

Fair enough. And if Pace is the best, which former Ram and current Seahawk Grant Wistrom seconded this week, Jones isn't far behind. Schlereth ranks Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden 1A, Pace 1B and Jones 1C. He doesn't see much separation.

"We have a great one," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "And they have a great one."

That's the way life has been since the Rams relinquished four draft choices to select Pace with the first pick in the 1997 draft. Five slots later, the Seahawks selected Jones after giving up two draft picks.

Jones is 6 feet 5, Pace is 6-7. Jones is 315 pounds, Pace is 325. Both regularly make the Pro Bowl Jones went for the fourth time last season, Pace went for the fifth consecutive time. Both regularly miss training camp.

And both rarely yield sacks.

The Seahawks have not worried, even when Jones regularly skips training camp. Jones shows up the first week of the season and ends it in the Pro Bowl.

"The other thing that people don't realize is that linemen can sit out camp and play at a high level not many position players can," Schlereth said. "They don't miss a beat because it's their athleticism that makes them good."

But only for so long. Jones turned 30 this January and, eventually, he will need training camp. Or at least that's the theory offensive-line coach Bill Laveroni posited this week.

"What happens, in every player, is as he gets older, those skills that were so easy for him as a younger player become harder to get kicked into motion," Laveroni said. "As you get older, those skills, like anything, you're just a split-second later with something that was automatically on time. There comes a time in your career when you need to have camp."

How long will that be for Jones? For Pace? "I don't know," Laveroni said. "I just hope that things get worked out and he (Jones) can come to camp next year. If not, I just hope he's back