Joe Thomas is the poster boy. Sure, he is the stalwart left tackle who has yet to miss a game since being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2007. He has has been named to the NFL’s All-Pro team five times and has made six trips to the Pro Bowl. Thomas is workmanlike—many recall the fishing trip he opted to take instead of the glitz and glamor of New York on draft day. He says little, a Teller in a room full of Penns. When he does speak, it is often with his hands, leaving would-be pass-rushers left to merely try again. Yet, Joe Thomas is the poster boy.
In Dave Flemming’s latest story in ESPN The Magazine, Thomas stands as one of the league’s preeminent players at his position—ranked fifth last season by Pro Football Focus—anchoring an offense that has ranked above 24th only once during his tenure with the team. The left tackle was once thought to be a building block, the cornerstone by which offenses thrive or fail. It was even the subject of an award winning book and, later, a movie by the same name. But just as the game has evolved, so has philosophy by which success is predicated. And thus, as Flemming writes, the Browns have themselves a player who every team would love to employ, but one who has the biggest cap hit out of any player ranked in the top 10, and one who has not correlated to offensive production or wins though it may be no fault of his own.
Flemming’s lede hinged on the Miami Dolphins letting Jake Long hit the open market this past offseason, signing with the St. Louis Rams1 for four years and $36 million. This was just a few short years after the ‘Phins made Long the first-overall draft pick in 2008—one year after the Browns inked Thomas—which net the left tackle almost $60 million. Long made four-consecutive Pro Bowls and was alongside Thomas when it came to bar room debates over who, exactly, was the best left tackle in all the land. But, as Flemming writes, the left tackle position is slowly dropping in terms of value, going the way of the running backs and return men. As the read-option and spread offense becomes a larger part of today’s NFL game, the necessity of a high-proflile player on the “blind side,” diminishes.
Flemming references the “holy trinity” of team-building in the NFL: quarterback, left tackle, and pass rusher. Then comes the body blow as Thomas is not responsible for throwing, catching or limiting opposing teams from doing the same.
“When coaches talk about position hierarchy, left tackle isn’t among the top few anymore,” an AFC team exec says. “Now it’s QB, pass rusher, cornerback, wide receiver. A guy like Joe Thomas shows that a great left tackle isn’t nearly sufficient.”
In June of 2011, our own Andrew wrote a lengthy column2 on the “tragedy” of Joe Thomas’ career with the Browns heading into what was his free agency season—”as much as Joe Thomas is a rare commodity in the NFL, the Browns had completed wasted his value.” Andrew added quotes from Phil Savage, the man who selected Thomas third-overall, in front of game-changing play-makers like Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis and Darrelle Revis. No one batted an eye. To this day, the majority of Browns fans will—and should—defend the selection as Thomas, for better or worse, continues to be one of the most important players on the Browns roster. Per Flemming, however, said importance is a function of the lack of other weapons more than it is Thomas himself.
The ultimate fallout of Andrew’s piece received some closure when the Browns extended the left tackle for seven more years3. Thomas, in 2012 was the highest-paid player on the Browns, topping Athyba Rubin’s deal by more than $3 million. At one point, re-upping Thomas was seen as a no-brainer, a move that the Browns had to do if they were not going to take a step back from the already dreadful offensive figures they had been able to provide. But was it the right one? Even Savage has changed his tune.
“It used to be you found a great left tackle and built the rest of it from there,” Savage says. “Now, because of defenses, you’d better be solid across the entire line. Instead of the super-elite left tackle, it’s about five men who block well in a system. You could write a whole book about how the spread offense has impacted the NFL game.”
Quarterbacks—most of them, anyway—simply do not take as long to throw the ball. The NFL average release time is just under 3.5 seconds. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning take just over 3.0 seconds. Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers have recently won Super Bowls, both men being protected by rank-and-file left tackles. As the quarterback era continues to grow, many teams are focusing their efforts on simply getting to the passers via shorter routes—hence all of the issues that tended to creep up with the Browns’ interior linemen in 2012 and the skyrocketing value of players like Alabama’s Chance Warmack. Are players like Warmack (and David DeCastro in 2012) exceptions, or merely a sign that the rules are changing?
A lot of this may be moot as, despite Thomas’ large, cap-eating contract, the Browns still have considerable financial flexibility. The team has already attempted to add to their pass-rushing attack—one of the keystones in the new hierarchy of roster building—through several moves in free agency. The other areas, however, continue to remain as key—essentially perennial—needs as second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden is rife with question marks, the receiving corps remains considerably raw, and the defensive backfield isn’t even deep enough for an intrasquad scrimmage. Certainly, Thomas can’t be blamed for the inept drafting that surrounded his selection4 or the way the game has changed since he slapped on that orange helmet for the first time.
What cannot be debated is that the Browns have one of the premier left tackles in the game, a poistion that was once thought to be key for any long-term success. For the Browns and their fans, however, the man Thomas is protecting and those who are on the receiving end of the passes are becoming infinitely more important and infinitely more difficult for this team to nail down. One can’t help but feel that the Browns have merely been behind the ever-evolving team-building curve this entire time.
Image via Scott Sargent/WFNY