Hue Jackson made one thing clear Thursday: There’s no filling the shoes of Joe Thomas.
There is, however, a massive spot to fill on a Browns offensive line that boasts an experienced interior and a new face at right tackle, former Steeler Chris Hubbard. The Browns coach and general manager John Dorsey identified three players on the current roster, including last year’s starting right tackle, Shon Coleman, as the first wave of candidates to fill a spot occupied by Thomas since the start of the 2007 season.
“Somebody has to go play left tackle, there is no question, but do you really replace a Hall of Fame player in the organization?” Jackson said. “We hope to go draft another Joe Thomas someday, but Joe Thomas is not in this building and he is not coming back this year. We are going to play somebody at left tackle, and we are going to give some guys opportunities to do it, but I hope nobody in here thinks the next Joe Thomas is fixing to go play over there this season.”
Coleman, Spencer Drango and Donald Stephenson, who was signed Thursday after two seasons with the Denver Broncos, have experience protecting the quarterback’s blind side at varying levels.
Coleman played the position for multiple seasons at Auburn. When he arrived in Cleveland as a third-round pick in 2016, he was immediately switched to the opposite side of the line. Even as he broke through as a starter for the 2017 season, Coleman admitted he was still more comfortable on the left side of the line, as he’d often fill the spot on Thomas’ days off from practice.
On Thursday, he was working out with Thomas, who quickly took Coleman under his wing upon his arrival two years ago.
“They were working on stuff already,” Dorsey said. “You can just see that Shon is committed and he is looking forward to the challenge. That is all you could ask for.”
Drango, who played left tackle at Baylor, was drafted two rounds after Coleman in 2016 and began his career as a do-it-all, versatile lineman. He got the call last year when Thomas went down with a season-ending triceps injury and started the final nine games. Jackson said the team made adjustments to the offense to account for the loss of Thomas, and Drango came away from the experience believing he had a future at the position beyond 2017.
Stephenson, who is entering his seventh NFL season, was a left tackle in college and started 15 games at the position over four seasons with the Chiefs. In Denver, he was exclusively used as a right tackle.
The Browns will also get a look at Rod Johnson, a fifth-round pick in last year’s draft who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
“We have to go find that guy, just like anything we find,” Jackson said. “We are going to play some guys, and they are going to play their tails off. There is no question in my mind. We have some athletes here that we think can play. We are going to play the best five guys, but obviously, somebody has to start over there first.
“I think there is an opportunity to still be a good offensive line, but we are not going to be the same line without Joe Thomas. There is no question about that.”