June 30, 2016

Partly sunny

Thomas out to avoid sophomore slump

BEREA — For a town that watched the Indians’ Joe Charboneau go from Rookie of the Year to the answer to an obscure trivia question, it’s reasonable that fans be worried about a sophomore jinx for any promising Cleveland athlete. That includes Browns left tackle Joe Thomas.

But Thomas and the team are supremely confident he’ll avoid a letdown following a rookie season that ended with a trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.

The reasons are numerous: quick feet, athleticism, strong work ethic, his position and Midwestern values.

“Joe’s biggest assets are his feet and his demeanor,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “He’s solid and down to earth.”

“As an offensive lineman, he’s going to stay Joe,” said guard Eric Steinbach, who started 16 games next to Thomas last year. “Joe’s Joe. He’s a simple, laid-back guy.

“Now if he was a wide receiver and had the year he had, certain skill guys sometimes have a different attitude.”

Thomas is the same well-mannered, clean-cut Wisconsin kid who skipped the draft at New York’s Radio City Music Hall to go fishing with his family. He’s also more comfortable in his surroundings, which lets his personality shine through.

He co-hosts an outdoor sportsman show on television and let out a belly laugh halfway through an answer about handling his newfound fame.

“It’s nice being a lineman, because you can kind of fit in pretty well in the community and on the team,” he said.

Still, Thomas stood out as a rookie.

Expectations were high after he was chosen with the No. 3 pick, but no one would’ve predicted a Pro Bowl. In fact, he was just the fourth rookie offensive lineman ever picked for the Pro Bowl and the first Browns rookie chosen since linebacker Chip Banks in 1982.

He was part of one of the best Browns lines in history, as it allowed just 19 sacks, the third-fewest in the NFL. Quarterback Derek Anderson said Thomas was to blame on just one, but Thomas questioned the statistic.

“There’s always kind of a fudge factor,” he said of linemen bragging about allowing a low sack number. “Unless you are truly one-on-one with somebody and have no help anywhere, it’s hard to say it was all my fault.”

Anderson was sure of one sack he allowed, against Buffalo in the blizzard. When a reporter suggested it shouldn’t count because of the snow, Thomas hopped back on his soapbox.

“That’s the thing when people say he didn’t give up any sacks,” he said. “‘Cause that one didn’t count and this didn’t count. It was snowing, it was a twist.’

“I could’ve made a better set, my technique could’ve been better and I probably would’ve prevented it.”

Accountability is another reason the Browns front office isn’t up at nights worried about Thomas.

“I’ve got to get 10-15 percent better,” he said. “You can always do things a little better and there’s always a lot of improvement you can make from year to year.

“This offseason my main goal was improving technique.”

At 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, Thomas is far from the heaviest tackle in the league. He relies on quickness and fundamentals to neutralize stronger defensive ends.

On Wednesday in a pass-rushing drill, he stonewalled rookie outside linebacker Alex Hall on an inside move, then drove him to the ground. He also stopped Hall’s speed move on the outside and denied starter Kamerion Wimbley.

“A rookie like that comes around every once in a blue moon,” Steinbach said of Thomas. “Every week he had a challenge and every week he was able to shut down his guy.”

Thomas credits offensive line coach Steve Marshall and veteran linemen Steinbach, Hank Fraley, Kevin Shaffer and Ryan Tucker for helping him stay focused.

“If you have the right mind-set, if you never think you’re good enough, never think you’ve arrived, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I just try to be humble and always be a little better.”

Thomas entered the league with aspirations of reaching the Hall of Fame, and the Pro Bowl was the first step in that direction. If he can make Hawaii an annual trip — “He has that ability,” Crennel said — the drive to Canton could become a reality.

“The Pro Bowl was a lot of fun because you’re playing with guys that when you were a little kid you watched play in the Pro Bowl,” Thomas said. “To see all those people on TV and to call them teammates now was pretty neat.”

He plans on being a staple of the AFC roster for the next decade or beyond.

“The Pro Bowl is the pinnacle for anybody,” he said. “Now it’s kind of extra motivation to be able to try to go back every year.”

No sophomore slumps allowed. Not for this Super Joe.

Petrak may be reached at spetrak@chroniclet.com or 440-329-7136.