As the highest-paid player on the Browns, is Joe Thomas’ value diminishing?

DSCN0904Joe 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.”

Joe Thomas Left TackleIn 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

  1. Much to the chagrin of Cleveland native Roger Saffold, by the way… []
  2. It’s how he rolls. []
  3. Much to the chagrin of Petyon Hillis. These contracts and the subsequently induced chagrin, I tell you… []
  4. Hello, 2009… []

  • mgbode

    Scott, bookmark this article for future use. As you mention, the point is moot right now. Yes, his value is a bit diminished as his age and contract escalates and we need money to tie up elsewhere on the team. However, currently, we have considerable room for his contract and he’s the best player at his position in the NFL (IMO – tough first few games last year while recovering from a knee injury, but after that he was his dominant self).

  • Harv 21

    I get the idea but it defies a one-trend-fits-all analysis.

    First, there is a big difference between a good left tackle being sufficient and being necessary. Thomas’s skills may be necessary even if they alone are not enough because our procurement of other players or competent coaches has been deficient. You may need to have that guy in place eventually, even if his current presence alone can’t translate into wins. Football is a team game.

    Secondly, spread offenses (and the recently departed WCO, with its quick drops and releases) may not require a left tackle holding his blocks an extended period. But Norv’s downfield passing attack does. Just because Thomas may be overpaid on the Redskins doesn’t mean he is here.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Answer to title: No.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I wonder if the seeming diminished value of LTs is because everyone has put a focus on getting a very good one, too. When people know they aren’t getting around that left side, then by definition they’ll focus their attacks/blitzes/etc. elsewhere, making those areas more valuable. If a team has a poor left tackle, though, suddenly it seems a lot more important.

  • Very fair point. It’s often easy to use broad-brush philosophies when there is so much to be had in terms of team-specific schema. I guess the question *then* is, is Norv’s offense the next to be deemed antiquated?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Love Thomas but I still stand by my disappointment of not drafting Adrian Peterson instead. Even after all of the years Thomas has been here he still doesn’t have a decent QB to protect. Meanwhile Peterson has carried an entire offense on his back been injured only to return and carry an entire offense on his back yet again.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You just can’t have one of your OL being so head and shoulders better then the rest. The OL is so interdependent that I can see how having 5 solid guys would be better then 1 Pro Bowler, 2 solid and 2 schleps. But that’s why the front office people get paid what they do and why we comment here.

  • mgbode

    and he still doesn’t have a decent QB to help out

  • porkchop

    I’m not a fan of the “whats trending” form of team building. Maybe I’m just missing the point, but if the paradigm has shifted and Cornerbacks and WRs are the “critical pieces” to building a championship roster, then why are the Jets shopping Revis and more importantly not getting any action as of yet? Shouldnt the best player at one of the newest “hot positions” not ever be shopped? Or if shopped shouldn’t somebody have jumped on him already? If recievers are so critical why do the Steelers, Ravens, and Patriots routinely dump the Holmes, Wallaces, Welkers, and Boldin’s of the world? Elite pass rushers? Osi now resides in Atlanta. My point is that if these are “the guys” you lock up why aren’t teams locking them up?

    Miami didn’t let Long walk because they didn’t value a great left tackle, they let him go because they felt he is injured and is probably going to continue being injured. If Thomas had missed the better part of the past 2 seasons the Browns may have viewed him differently.

    To me there is no magic formula, the new read option offenses will be figured out and schemed for. Each team chooses 2-3 players they view as cornerstones for what they do and hope to get a few good years out of players who exceed their contracts before letting them go and replacing them with younger players. For example the Patriots have chosen an offensive scheme that gets the ball out quicker and thus puts less emphasis on giving the QB time. If Chud wants to throw down field his QB – whoever it is – is going to need time to throw. The worst mistake the Browns could make would be chasing a trend at the expense of their philosophy.

    Under Savage for example the Browns went into 2008 hoping to replicate the success of the previous year. They spent a buttload in picks and cap space on several positions, however they completely banked on the oft banged up Tucker holding down the right tackle spot. He was hurt, his replacements were awful and the same offense Chud wants to run now, didn’t have enough time to develop plays and things fell apart.
    I don’t know I’ll have to see the product on the field, but I feel like the Browns would be better served under this coaching regime by paying an offensive line, and bringing in a stream of large fast recievers, letting them learn a year or two on the bench, and letting them replace the current guys when other teams want to overpay.

  • mgbode

    what is Dana Holgorsen’s scheme other than mixing in some spread concepts (bubble screens, some WR-spread runs) into the old Air Coryell offense?

    also known as Chud’s scheme w/ Cam. as long as a coach can adjust his scheme, it will always be relevant (WCO is still ever-present as well. It’s just now a spread-offense passing system. The bubble screen itself was bred from the “short pass is a run” philosophy).

  • hear hear to everything in this.

    only additional point i’d offer to pork is that jonathan martin (who was projected as a 1st rd LT prior to the draft last year) gives the dolphins a replacement to long that is not horrible.

    my ask of the browns would be: be trend setting, not trend following.

    (btw, i maintain every sweep we ran last year was good for 5 to 7 yards.)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I was trying my best to give Weeden some benefit of the doubt but I agree.

    I’ve taken heat for my view in drafting Peterson over Thomas given the history of not drafting a RB so high (last years debate over Richardson perfect example) and their short playing career but I just find it ironic that the Browns have had a Pro Bowl protecting LT and still no QB to protect.

  • BenRM

    I still think the “spread” offense is a gimmick like the wildcat.

  • Love this comment and the one that preceded it as well as Scott’s post. Great conversation. I think the death of the left tackle is largely overblown, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if Joe Thomas has potentially seen the top of the mountain and is heading back down the other side. That’s not a knock on him personally either. That’s the nature of this game as dudes arrive in their late 20’s on deals they signed in their mid 20’s.

  • BorownieBob

    EXACTLY WHAT I HAVE BEEN SAYING FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS!!!!!!! LT is the most overblown overpaid postion in football……And to all of you who disagree…..answer me this……Is their ONE PERSON in America that would want Joe Thomas instead of Ben Roethlesberger over the past 6 years????????????….Exactly….Ben had 3 paper bags at LT and still should have won 3 Super Bowls……..Way overblown……if the QB is good it doesnt matter…

  • Ish

    I think everything happens in cycles, and that defenses
    follow offensive trends. Right now we are seeing a pass oriented game play, so you will see a rise in defensive pass rushers and cornerbacks. There will come a point where offenses realize that most defenses have become vulnerable to running backs, and then running game will become augmented (assuming NFL rule changes do not make it obsolete). Defenses will then build to stop the run again and
    the cycle will continue.
    Look at the Superbowl this year. People keep talking about how this is a pass oriented league (which is true), but both teams are known for their strong running game. Paul Kruger got limited snaps because he is a pass rusher. You just do what works, which is why I am so excited for the Brown’s flexible coaching staff.

  • mgbode

    QB >> LT. no question there. but, I’ll bet Ben and his increasingly large numbers of injuries sure would like to have JoeT on his team.

  • steve-o

    Positional value in the modern NFL;

    1) QB

    2) Everything else

    Certainly Thomas’s skill has been marginalized by protecting the blind side of the following QB’s;

    Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis…

    Unfortunately, Thomas will probably be retired before we have a QB of similar caliber, so we may never realize his true value.

  • john

    it matters not who your quarterback is if your back side tackle stinks. some of the cast of quarterbacks who have come through cleveland in the last 14 years would have fared much better if Joe Thomas would have been at LT during their tenure. If football at its core is about blocking and tackling, then your last blocker on your blind side is your most important blocker, then in my opinion, the money spent on Joe Thomas is the wisest player investment on the team. I also appreciate some very good points by the other posters in this comment thread especially porkchop and ezzie goldish. I predict that Joe Thomas will continue to play and be effective long after Adrian Peterson has retired; just a hunch.

  • kmk-dawg

    All positions are just as important as the other and LT is very important and helps big to find a great one. The number over all pick in 2013 draft will be LT Luke Joeckel and LT Fisher,Johnson,Mathews among others will be in the first top half of the draft. Why because it’s an important position. Yes you need a great pass rush,coverage,WR and QB and RB but games are and have always been and always will be lost and won in the trenches.

  • eldaveablo

    I don’t even understand what your point is. Would the Browns rather have a great QB than a great LT? Definitely. The problem is that in the draft, the choices aren’t “draft great LT” or “draft great QB”. You evaluate, trust your evaluation, and make your pick. If it was easy, everyone would do like the Pats – draft a HOF QB in the 6th round. Should the Browns not try to draft talented players at other positions, just waiting for the great QB? Pointing out the faults of the Browns is easy – yet you dwell on something they did right- draft a HOF left tackle. Try providing better ideas than, “The Browns should have a great quarterback!”

  • brownieBob

    Look……the point is we keep bragging about what a great LT we have….SO WHAT????…..we stink……we probably would have won more games with a Devin Hester or a mid tier QB than Joe Thomas…….whats out of sync is we are paying him 12million when guys in other positions would help us win more games at way less cost…..This love for the LT is way overblown…..and if you cant see that then any explanation is useless……according to experts we had a top 5 offensive line…..what did that get us?????….NOTHING……..i am beginning to believe you need great coaching….great QB…..and a decent amount of above average supporting cast………without those 3 you are watsing your time…..

  • nonespecial

    big ben had to run for his life most of the time and he took alot of hits, but thats why hes so good, takes a lickin and keeps on tickin……..while he runs like a checken

  • alexb

    He ain’t declining at all. Unfortunately it took some time for the rest of the offensive line to be built up to his level. But now the browns are protecting the qb like I haven’t seen “for sure” since they came back in 99 and maybe not for a while even before the team moved to Baltimore. Tim Couch’s career might have gone a little better had he been taking snaps behind this line. Actually a couple of browns qb’s in the last 12 years might have had different careers if they weren’t running for their lives on every down.

  • alexb

    Hey dude you won’t get a great qb to come to Cleveland if we don’t “consistently” have a decent line. Seriously, the joke around the league a few years back is that Cleveland is where old qb’s go to die or promising young careers die a horrible death.