tampabay.com

Bucs have been waiting for you

Wisconsin's Joe Thomas would fill a longstanding need at left tackle.

By RICK STROUD
Published February 23, 2007


INDIANAPOLIS - Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas is the son of a banker. He also might be the player who offers the best return on investment in the NFL draft.

A certain top-three selection, Thomas, 22, could be plugged in at left tackle for the next 10 years.

A coin flip this morning between the Bucs and Browns will determine who owns the third overall pick.

Thomas could be off the board by then, but no player is a better match of talent and need for Tampa Bay.

The Bucs ranked 28th in the NFL in rushing with an average of 95.2 yards. Although they upgraded the right side of their offensive line last year by drafting guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood, left tackle Anthony Davis struggles against some of the elite pass rushers and has offered to move to guard.

Thomas disappointed Bucs coaches when he declined to participate in the Senior Bowl. All is forgiven after a meeting with team officials this week, and Thomas said he would like to be reunited with former Badgers teammate Dan Buenning, the Bucs' starting left guard.

"I met with some of the guys from Tampa Bay and expressed my regret that I couldn't play in the (Senior Bowl)," Thomas said.

"But I think if I do get to play there, we'll have a great relationship.

"Dan and I got along really well at Wisconsin, I think we're very similar type people and players, and it'd be great to play next to him down in Tampa."

Wisconsin offensive line coach Bob Palcic says Thomas is in the same league as two other left tackles he coached - Tony Boselli at Southern Cal and Jonathan Ogden at UCLA. Boselli was a five-time Pro Bowl player with the Jaguars, who took him No. 2 overall in 1995. Ogden, the fourth overall selection of the Ravens in 1996, has been to nine Pro Bowls.

The Raiders are expected to use the first overall pick on LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell.

The Lions own the second overall choice and are believed to be focused on Thomas, who likely would be asked to move to right tackle opposite Jeff Backus. But if the Lions go another direction - and they've been unpredictable under general manager Matt Millen - the Bucs could be staring at Thomas.

The 6-foot-6, 311-pounder says offensive linemen make safe picks early in the first round and he would be no exception.

"I think over the past years, it's been pretty true," Thomas said. "You see just about every offensive lineman who's been picked in the top five, top 10 in the last few years has gone on to start and start for a long career. You can't say that about quarterbacks or running backs or receivers or any of those positions. They talk about a guy as a bust in the top five as an offensive lineman, he might've been a five- or six-year starter but he didn't make the Pro Bowl and they call that a bust. Whereas you're a bust as a receiver only if you get cut after three years."

In the NFL, quality running backs and receivers can be found throughout the draft. But franchise left tackles normally go early. The Bucs haven't had a franchise left tackle since Paul Gruber, a first-round pick from Wisconsin in 1988.

"It's a luxury to have an elite player at left tackle, whether it's Orlando Pace or whoever it is," said Lions offensive coordinator and former Rams coach Mike Martz. "It helps immensely with your protections on the back side of the quarterback. He's there and you don't worry about it. You don't have to chip, don't have to help him at all. When you can take that guy over on the left - that team's best pass rusher - and put an X on him and say, 'He's done for the day,' that's huge."

Thomas could be that type of player. He was a three-sport star at Brookfield Central High and played basketball at the collegiate level. He also was an Olympic-quality shot putter and could high jump 6 feet.

As for his attitude, it's hard to find anyone to say something negative about Thomas.

In fact, his willingness to help his team almost cost him a pro career. As a junior, when the defense was decimated by injuries, Thomas volunteered to play defensive end in the Capital One Bowl and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

"We had a couple injuries during the year and I had started at defensive end as a true freshman for one game and I just raised my hand and said I'd like to step in and help the team win," Thomas said. "And we won. So who cares about the injury?"