Where have the blue-chip left tackles gone?

Offensive linemen Travelle Wharton, Jermon Bushrod, and Donald Penn were not first-round draft picks, but they have proved to be capable left tackles for their respective teams. Icon SMI

There’s an age-old theory in the NFL when it comes to left tackles. It’s pretty simple, really and it goes something like this: Every decade or so, you use a first-round draft pick on a left tackle. You throw him out and there and he anchors your offensive line for 10 or 12 years.

Think Anthony Munoz or Jonathan Ogden. You get a guy like that and, chances are, he’s going to be around through at least a couple of coaching regimes and you’ve got one position you don’t need to worry about.

It’s a philosophy that’s been so rock solid through the years, that every team subscribes. But what happens when the subscription runs out or someone steals the magazine out of the mailbox?

Well, that’s sort of what’s happening right now in the NFC South -- the division without a stud left tackle.

It wasn’t planned this way at all. But the Carolina Panthers were starting Travelle Wharton, who truly is a guard, at left tackle when they lost to the Dolphins on Thursday night. Come Sunday, there’s a very good chance Wharton, who was a third-round draft pick, might have the best pedigree of any starting left tackle in the division.

There’s a very real chance that the other three NFC South teams will be starting left tackles who were not drafted, drafted late or born in the Czech Republic. Yes, this is what it has come to as we head for the playoff stretch.

Where have you gone Willie Roaf and Paul Gruber?

It’s been this way through parts of the division for much of the season, but the trend suddenly has grown because of injuries. The amazing thing is that the lack of blue-chip left tackles hasn’t caused a disaster for any of the NFC South teams --at least not yet.

Here’s a look at each NFC South team’s situation at left tackle:

Atlanta. The Falcons are the only team in the division that could end up with a first-round draft pick playing left tackle any time the rest of this season. That would be Sam Baker, whom the Falcons drafted out of Southern California last year. They used their second of two first-round picks to get Baker to protect the blindside of top pick Matt Ryan.

Baker’s been fine -- when he’s been on the field. But the problem is he’s already had a disturbing assortment of injuries. He missed last Sunday’s game against Carolina and the Falcons were forced to throw Will Svitek out there at left tackle and ask him to block Julius Peppers.

Svitek got through that game without much problem, but that was mainly because Peppers was playing with a broken hand and played only part of the game. Svitek’s the kind of guy who can get you through a game, but he’s not someone you want to hang out there for the rest of the season. The Falcons are 5-4 and have problems all over the place. To have any shot at the playoffs, they need to get Baker healthy and back into the lineup.

Carolina. Entering the season, the Panthers had the best left tackle in the division -- maybe in the NFL -- in Jordan Gross. They drafted him early in the first round back in 2003 and gave him a massive new contract after last season.

But disaster struck last week when Gross broke his ankle and went down for the season. That forced Carolina to drastically overhaul its offensive line because the Panthers don’t have another true left tackle on the roster. They’ve shifted Wharton to left tackle and inserted Mackenzy Bernadeau, who made his first NFL start Thursday night, at left guard.

Wharton’s been a starter at left tackle before and he’s serviceable there. But he’s not nearly as good at left tackle as he is at guard and he’s not nearly as good as Gross. There’s also a big drop-off from Wharton to Bernadeau at left guard and the 4-6 Panthers will have to pull off miracles on their offensive line if they have any hopes of making the playoffs.

New Orleans. The Saints thought they got their left tackle for a generation when they used the 13th overall pick in 2005 to take Jammal Brown out of Oklahoma. That move was working out just fine as Brown made the Pro Bowl in the 2006 and ’08 seasons.

But trouble surfaced in the preseason when Brown had to have surgeries for a hip injury and a sports hernia. Initially, the Saints thought he could return around midseason, but his recovery was slow and New Orleans decided to place Brown on injured reserve.

Brown’s injuries have given rise to one of the NFL’s biggest surprises. That’s Jermon Bushrod, who was thrust into the starting lineup after spending his first two seasons on the bench. A fourth-round pick out of Towson State, Bushrod suddenly was placed in charge of protecting Drew Brees’ back.

The amazing thing is Bushrod has done just fine. Give him lots of credit for that, but don’t go thinking he’s a Pro Bowler and the Saints should try to trade Brown in the offseason. Bushrod is not Brown. He has limitations and the Saints know it. If you watch their offense, they’ve done a lot to help Bushrod. They give him blocking help with their tight ends, fullback and running backs and it also helps that Brees has a quick release and doesn’t take many deep drops.

Tampa Bay. Part of the reason Jon Gruden was fired after last season was because he never instituted a long-term plan and this was especially true at left tackle. He was bringing in washed-up veterans like Luke Petitgout, but that might end up being a blessing for Raheem Morris and the current regime. Totally by accident (and injuries to Petitgout), the Bucs discovered Donald Penn.

He wasn’t even drafted out of Utah State, but he’s turned out to be a solid starting left tackle. He may never be dominant, but Penn has played well enough that the Bucs are likely to try to sign him to a big contract before the start of free agency in February.

Penn and Bushrod have shown that you don’t always have to find a left tackle in the first round of the draft. But they’re the exceptions. It’s nice when you can find gems like them and surround them with a good offensive line. But it’s even nicer when you draft a blue-chip tackle in the first round and build your offensive line around him.