"...the Oakland Raiders select......., Joe Thomas, Offensive Tackle, University of Wisconsin." NowI know I said the same thing last year about the Texans selecting D’Brickashaw Ferguson with the first pick and in reality I'm not expecting to hear these words uttered by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on April 28 at approximately 12:18 pm when he introduces the first pick in the draft. Most likely, we will hear the name "Russell" or "Quinn," or "Johnson" along with the first pick (although I think JaMarcus Russell is almost a lock.) Much of the debate in cyberspace as well as on the radio and television revolves around Russell, I'm here to tell you that even though the analysts and commentators are paid to give their opinions (while your humble scribe works for free) that doesn't mean they are making the right call. Most analysts believe Russell will go to the Raiders thus creating a modern day “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Al Davis, Lane Kiffin, Randy Moss, and JaMarcus Russell). Now I agree that this is how things will probably turn out but I'm here to tell you why I think things should turn out differently. The following are the top five reasons that the Oakland Raiders should select Joe Thomas with the first pick in the draft:
#5 - You must solidify the protection for the quarterback before you find the quarterback. In 2005, David Carr suffered through 68 sacks, 424 yards lost, 17 fumbles, six fumbles lost. It was a rough season for the former number one pick in 2002 NFL Draft. He received an $8 million roster bonus which seemed to lock him up as the franchise quarterback through the 2008 season but he never got there because the Texans did not overhaul their offensive line. Mario Williams couldn’t protect Carr and now Carr is gone. Four years of quarterback development and an $8 million dollar roster bonus last season down the tubes. Maybe a pick like D’Brickashaw Ferguson could have helped salvage Carr’s career by providing better pass protection for Carr. Now it’s 2007 and the same scenario seems to be building. The Raiders are set to grab Russell, a big armed and slow footed quarterback that seems to be more in the Byron Leftwich mold than the Donovan McNabb mold. Now I'm not saying that to be an NFL Quarterback you have to be a running quarterback (although you will probably need to run for your life as a Raiders quarterback). What I am saying is that when you play behind the worst Offensive Line in football, you have to be able to move in and out of the pocket. To be able to use the arm that can chuck a football 50 yards down the field, you need pass protection that will hold up while your receiver gets 50 yards down the filed. The Raiders O-Line is the worst in football. Statistically speaking they were the worst rated offense in the NFL in 2006. They gave up a league leading 72 sacks. The Lions gave up the second most at 63 sacks. That's nine sacks worse over 16 games. They were the only team in the NFL to lose over 400 yards from sacks. Do you really think it matters whether Russell can throw the ball 15 yards or 50 yards? Do you really think a rookie QB with a questionable work ethic, an inability to read defenses and is slow of foot can win in a situation like this? No way. Just check out the following image. This is what will happen to Russell about 80 times next year.
A pick like Joe Thomas would solidify the offensive line at the crucial left tackle spot. The left tackle spot has emerged as one of the most crucial positions for a football team. Michael Lewis, author of the critically acclaimed Moneyball, also penned The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, in which he contends that in the evolution of football “first came the modern, meticulously choreographed passing offense, then the ferocious defensive pass rusher whose bone-crunching quarterback sacks demolished the best-laid passing game, and finally the rise of the left tackle—the offensive lineman tasked with protecting the quarterback from the pass rusher—whose presence is felt only through the game-deciding absence of said sacks. A rare creature combining 300 pounds of bulk with ‘the body control of a ballerina,’ the anonymous left tackle who is now often a team's highest-paid player.” The importance of the left tackle position can not be over stated so if you have an opportunity to land a franchise offensive tackle, as many scouts believe Thomas will be, then you land him.
Now some will say that the Raiders already wasted a pick on a “franchise” left tackle by drafting Robert Gallery in 2004. First of all, Thomas is a much better left tackle than Robert Gallery. While there are some similarities, there are also crucial differences. Like Gallery, Thomas is huge. He checked in at the combine at 6-6½, 311 pounds. Like Gallery, Thomas is a great athlete for his size. He is mobile. He is quick. He has those long arms. He can pull, slide and block in space. "There are some similarities," said Mike Mayock, scouting analyst for the NFL Network. "The knock on Gallery is his arm length. Thomas measures out with a much longer wing span than Gallery, a huge factor for left tackles. Plus, Gallery is a little more top heavy. I think drafting Thomas means you can shift Gallery to Left Guard or Right Tackle, where his shorter arm length and lack of lateral quickness won’t be such a detriment plus you get to salvage your #1 pick from 2004. I refer to it is “DPM” or Draft Pick Maximization which means simply that teams should draft based on a philosophy of building around key positions and maximizing the talent around those positions. For example, the Bears spend a first round pick on Brian Urlacher and build a defense around him. That means in subsequent drafts you need strong interior defensive linemen to keep the guards away from Urlacher, hence a pick like Tommie Harris. The Harris pick helps to maximize the Urlacher pick because without a dominating defensive tackle, the middle linebacker can’t be effective. The Raiders can maximize gallery by moving him to guard and sliding Thomas into the left tackle spot which enables them to quickly rebuild 40% of their wretched offensive line.
#4 – Russell is not the right piece for a screwed up puzzle. If you want to see a recipe for disaster, this is it. You take a 31 year old first time Head Coach, two malcontent receivers in Moss and Porter, a wretched Offensive line and you throw in an unproven rookie QB who has had his work ethic questioned and his ability to read defenses scrutinized and you have what could turn out to be the greatest football disaster ever witnessed. Now you factor in this sideshow playing in front of 70,000 mad, rabid, crazed and drunken Raiders fans and the picture gets even uglier. Then you factor in the first time the hated Broncos come to town and the Russell has to face a secondary that includes Pro Bowlers Champ Bailey, Dre Bly and John Lynch and it would really be like watching a train wreck. It would be the most gruesome spectacle ever seen on television. If the Raiders had a more seasoned Head Coach (a Belichick, a Shanahan, a Dungy, and a Cowher) then this could possibly work. The fact that the Raiders have a 31 year old Head Coach with NO HEAD COACHING EXPERIENCE at any level, only one year of NFL coaching experience (Kiffin was the Jaguars "Defensive Quality Control Coach" in 2000...whatever the heck that is) does factor into this situation. Let’s face it, nine years ago Kiffin was a Graduate Assistant at Fresno State and you're telling me that in less than ten years he can go from Graduate Assistant at a middling program to NFL Head coach? That’s like going from legislative intern to U.S. Senator in three election cycles. It just doesn't happen!
#3 - History says "draft a left tackle!" While the jury is still out on Robert Gallery (2004 #2 pick), we can see that other tackles taken in the top 15 spots have paid BIG dividends for their teams. Going back to 1995 we see the following tackles chosen in the top 10 spots have all made it into the playoffs, many have been to the Pro Bowl and a couple have won Superbowls:
2006 – D’Brickashaw Ferguson - #4 pick – New York Jets: They go for 4-12 to the playoffs in a year with a noodle armed quarterback and unproven running backs. Somebody was making them better and that person was D’Brickashaw Ferguson
2005 – Jamaal Brown - #13 pick – New Orleans Saints: The biggest reason the Saints went from doormat to the NFC Championship game in a year was not the addition of Reggie Bush or Drew Brees but the fact that Jamaal Brown anchored the left tackle spot. Bush and Brees would not have had the seasons they did if they had the Raiders offensive line in front of them.
2004 – Shawn Andrews - #16 pick – Philadelphia Eagles: A big reason the Eagles have been so solid for the past few seasons was the pick of Shawn Andrews. Andrews was one of those players drafted as a tackle and moved to guard (my argument for what the Raiders should do with Gallery) and he has been a Pro Bowl player ever since.
2003 - Jordan Gross - #8 pick - Carolina Panthers: Lose Foster, lose Davis and Goings or Deangelo Williams can still torch you. Who do you think they are running behind?
2002 - Levi Jones - #10 pick - Cincinnati Bengals: Corey Dillon is a thousand yard rusher. He leaves and Rudi Johnson becomes a thousand yard rusher. Carson Palmer looks relaxed in the pocket and has a Pro-Bowl season. It's easy to be relaxed in the pocket when you aren't getting sacked 60+ times a season.
2000 - Chris Samuels - #3 pick - Washington Redskins: After many seasons of mediocrity, the once proud franchise seems to be turning it around and a lot of the credit should go to the franchise tackle.
1998 - Tra Thomas - #11 pick - Philadelphia Eagles: Alright, he was a number 11 pick but that's just one off. Is there any question that the fortunes of McNabb and the Eagles franchise turned around with the development of Deland High School's most famous football alum?
1997 - Orlando Pace - #1 pick - St. Louis Rams AND Walter Jones - #6 pick - Seattle Seahawks: One has a Superbowl ring and the other played in the Super Bowl. Warner, Jackson and Faulk, Hasselbeck and Alexander...who do you think is protecting these guys?
1996 - Jonathan Ogden - #4 pick - Baltimore Ravens: Cornerstone of a mediocre offense and helped Jamal Lewis to the third highest season rushing total in NFL history a few years back. Has a Superbowl ring. If the best GM in sports, Ozzie Newsome, would spend a high pick on a franchise left tackle, why wouldn't the Raiders?
1995 - Tony Boselli - #2 pick - Jacksonville Jaguars: Helped lead an expansion team to the AFC Divisional Championship game. Probably would have been the greatest of all time if career wasn't cut short by injuries (although his career was still longer than the career of the average NFL running back).
So as you can see, if the Raiders look to history instead of bowing to popular opinion, they should make the right call and draft Thomas. Successful teams build around left tackles as opposed to building without left tackles.
#2 - Too many questions about JaMarcus Russell. I spent some time a few weekends back at the Nike Coach of the Year Football clinic in Orlando, Florida. One of the featured speakers on Saturday night was Les Miles, Head Coach at LSU. His session was on the LSU Red Zone offense. Now if you've never been to a football coaching clinic let me tell you what goes on in these sessions. Coaches will take a topic and bring in cut ups of game film from the past season and they will go through formations and plays that their teams ran. This is normally for the benefit of the High School coaches (or youth coaches like me...Go Deland Knights!) who may be able to steal and idea or two from the film. Miles went through an hour of LSU Red Zone offensive plays from the 2006 season. Mind you, coaches usually only show the best plays for that particular scenario/situation so all we saw were the plays that Les Miles thought were the best executed plays in the redzone by the LSU offense. After watching about 30 red zone offensive plays I was in shock, as was much of the audience. How is it possible that a room full of youth and high school coaches can see that Russell is a terrible red zone QB but the Raiders can't see it? I can't tell you how many plays Russell was late getting off his throw, how many times he threw to a double or triple teamed receiver while another receiver was wide open or how many times he threw behind the receiver. Other than the post/corner route where he threw a pretty ball, Russell’s passes were ugly. Panther, Mesh, T-Slop, Power Pass (all LSU offensive terminologies), it didn't matter. The passes were ugly. Let's face it folks, if you can't make it n the Red Zone in the NFL, you are done for. I counted at least 8-10 touchdowns that LSU scored that would have been picked off passes in the NFL. Now you might say that Russell only threw eight interceptions last year and that he's a fairly accurate passer. To that I would say, check his stats. Sure he racked up big numbers against inferior teams but let's see how he stacked up against better teams. I will give a team and follow that up with his touchdown and interception numbers for that game:
- Louisiana-Lafayette - 3/0
- Arizona - 2/1
- Tulane - 2/0
- Mississippi State - 3/0
- Kentucky - 2/0
- Fresno State - 2/0
- Alabama - 3/0
- Ole Miss - 3/0
- Arkansas - 2/0
- TOTAL - 19 Touchdowns, 1 Interception
Now you look at these numbers and say "Frank, you're crazy! Nineteen touchdowns and only 1 interception! Draft him, sign him, break the bank and hand over the franchise to him!" Of course, as my buddy Lee Corso says "not so fast my friend." let's see how Russell fared against the better defenses he faced, the defenses that are probably a lot closer to what he'll see in the NFL:
- Florida - 1/3
- Tennessee - 3/3
- Notre Dame - 2/1
- Auburn - 0/0
- TOTAL - 6 Touchdowns, 7 Interceptions
Now I don't even think Notre Dame's defense was that good. Florida and Tennessee were probably the best defenses he faced all year and he threw six picks in those two games. Sure his overall stats for the season were great but there are no Louisiana - Lafayette's in the NFL. No Kentucky's, Tulane's, Fresno's or Arizona's in the NFL. The Florida defense was probably the absolute closest thing to an NFL defense and even they aren't as good defensively as the Chargers, Chiefs or Broncos.
Now you might say that the defenses will be better in the NFL but the offensive support that Russell gets will also be better in the NFL. I would say refer to points four and five above. The bottom line is Russell will get eaten alive by the better pass defenses in the AFC West. Can you imagine what will be going through Russell’s mind the first time he faces the Shawne Merriman and the Chargers pass rush? Can you fathom what Russell will be thinking the first time the Raiders play the Broncos and he is facing a secondary of Bailey, Bly and Lynch, three Pro-Bowlers? Can you contemplate wily old veterans (who still have gas left in the tank) like Ty Law and Pat Surtain licking their chops at the prospect of facing a rookie QB when the Chiefs invade Oakland? Let's face it; a team can get better faster by building a running game, especially in the AFC West. There is absolutely no way the Raiders could build up their passing offense to be even remotely competitive in the AFC West next year.
#1 - Did you see the pictures of him up top? Thomas is a prototype Left Tackle. 6'6", 311 pounds, runs about a 4.9 second 40. According to Scott Wright's Draft Countdown;” A true left tackle with terrific athleticism, Thomas is a better all-around prospect than D'Brickashaw Ferguson was a year ago. An excellent athlete for the position...Has outstanding feet...Great size with long arms...Very mobile and agile...Displays great balance and gets set quickly...Able to pull, slide and block in space...Still has the frame to bulk up and add some more weight...Technically sound, instinctive and very smart with top intangibles...Rare prospect who can legitimately play the crucial left tackle position at the pro level.”
I’m not sure what others think about the Thomas pick for the Raiders. As I said at the onset, it doesn’t seem like a reality at this point. Hopefully the movement will gain momentum and the crazy idea that the commish could be calling Joe’s name on April 28 at 12:18 pm may become a reality.