ESPN.com's Todd McShay wrote a piece yesterday disecting the first round of the NFL draft as if it were done today. Obviously it's a hindsight piece, but it made for a good topic. According to the piece, the Browns bypassed Stud Left Tackle Joe Thomas for the current NFL flavor of the month, RB Adrian Peterson. While everyone is busy stroking AP as "the best RB in the NFL" (didn't Ladanian Tomlinson get those accolades like 4 months ago?), Thomas flies under the radar since he is an offensive lineman.
According to McShay's analysis: This is the toughest decision of any pick in this re-draft. Cleveland selected Thomas back in April and he has turned into one of the offensive leaders for the resurgent Browns. But I said it in April and what's happened so far this season has only reinforced my feeling: The Browns should have taken Peterson at No. 3 overall. Yes, Thomas is a key player along the offensive front and will likely have a longer career than Peterson, but Peterson has simply been too special early this season not to make this choice. Any of the six teams that passed on him originally might take a mulligan to get him this time around, but the Browns look like the best fit right now as they could use a little more running to balance the seventh-best passing game (254.5 ypg) in the league.
As good as Peterson has been, the Browns still made the right decision with Thomas and here is why. Since their return in 1999, the Browns have neglected drafting offensive lineman high year in and year out. Only two offensive lineman were taken in the first four rounds between 1999-2006. Both were Centers. Jeff Faine, out of Notre Dame, was taken in the first round in 2003, but quickly wore out his welcome with sub par play and was jettisoned to New Orleans before last season. Melvin Fowler, a third round pick in 2002, played so poorly that a year later, Faine was drafted to replace him. He currently is starting in Buffalo. Not one tackle or guard was selected.
That all changed this offseason with Thomas. Take Peterson out of the mix and he is the offensive Rookie of the Year. The Browns also were lucky enough to snag the best free-agent offensive lineman available in Eric Steinbach, the 27 year old all-pro candidate. Put those two together on the left side and you have instant improvement. Current Browns Center Hank Fraley is a wily veteran who is rock solid. The right side has free agent signee Seth McKinney and displaced left tackle Kevin Shaffer, who has found a home on the right side. With former starting tackle Ryan Tucker and Lennie Friedman rotating in each game, this is the best line the Browns have had since the 80's.
It's not a coincidence that Browns QB Derek Anderson has turned the 2007 campaign into his personal coming out party.
Anyone who thinks that a great Running Back is more important to a team than a great offensive line is fooling themselves. What was the common denominator of why all Browns QB's have failed? Poor offensive lines. Tim Couch's confidence and career essentially were sabotaged because he spent years running for his life. Jeff Garcia's worst NFL season? His one year in Cleveland. Charlie Frye? Not that he is any good, but he literally did nothing but scramble out of trouble or get sacked for his year and a half at the helm.
What about the Browns running game? Non-existent for years. It didn't matter who was back there, William Green, Lee Suggs, Reuben Droughns, etc, the Browns couldn't get any kind of running game going. Think I'm wrong? What about the Denver Broncos? Do you think Droughns, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson were stars? All three rushed for over 1,200 yards in a season for Denver, then were essentially cast aside. You want to know why? Because behind a great offensive line like they had, anyone could become a star. Remember, Terrell Davis was a sixth round pick who was a sure-fire hall of famer before knee injuries derailed him. You think he gets those numbers playing anywhere else?
Its the line, people. Emmitt Smith is the NFL all-time leading rusher. While he was an amazing talent and one of the greatest of all times, he ran behind a line with hall of fame caliber players in Erik Williams and Larry Allen for his entire Cowboy career. Don't forget about studs Mark Tuinei (played 15 seasons), Kevin Gogan (14 seasons), and Nate Newton (13 seasons). Not exactly like the patchwork lines the Browns have trotted out there.
What about All-Pro RB Shaun Alexander? Two years ago, he was the NFL MVP leading his team to the Super Bowl. After that season, the best guard in football, Steve Hutchinson, left to go to the Vikings. His left tackle, Walter Jones, was on and off the field with numerous injuries. Fast forward to this year, no Hutchinson, a healthy Jones, and Alexander all of a sudden looks old and slow, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and scoring just two TD's. You think losing Hutchinson and watching Jones get older has anything to do with that? Oh by the way, guess who is blocking for Adrian Peterson right now? Hutchinson. He is next to former #7 overall pick Bryant McKinnie on the left side. Taking nothing away from Peterson (who is a special talent), but do you think that may have anything to do with his success?
The bottom line? I still would have taken Joe Thomas over Adrian Peterson. If Peterson was running behind last year's Browns line, he would struggle to get to 1,200 yards, which is an average of 75 yards per game. Both teams should be thrilled with their selections; they drafted cornerstone pieces they can build around. Now the real question is what should the Browns do with Brady Quinn if Derek Anderson keeps this up all year?