The last time somebody other than Joe Thomas started at left tackle for the Cleveland Browns, it was Kevin Shaffer on Dec. 31, 2006. That day, the Browns lost to the Houston Texans to finish a 4-12 season, earning them the third pick in the 2007 draft.
With it, they selected Thomas out of the University of Wisconsin, who stepped in as a starter in Week 1 and proceeded to play the next 10,363 snaps before tearing his triceps last Sunday against Tennessee.
“To be able to play that long is just really impressive,” said Vikings right tackle Mike Remmers. “Who’s the second-longest streak? It can’t even be close to that.”
The NFL hasn’t counted snaps long enough to definitively know whether Thomas’s streak is a league record, but it is the only streak of 10,000-plus snaps ever officially recorded.
The 10-time Pro Bowler was replaced by Spencer Drango, a 25-year-old out of Baylor, who started at left guard in eight games last season.
“He’s a hard guy to beat all the time,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Thomas, who he faced many times as the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator. “He was smart, good with his hands, good with his sets, physical in the running game.”
Even at age 33, Thomas was playing at an All-Pro level, and based on reputation alone would have been likely to make his 11th straight Pro Bowl. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas was ranked fourth in pass blocking efficiency this season, allowing zero sacks in 300 pass-block snaps. The analytics site ranked him in a tie for second overall among offensive tackles when combining his pass blocking and run blocking grade.
The most remarkable part of Thomas’s career has been his stability within a dysfunctional organization. The Browns have had six different coaches and nearly two dozen quarterbacks in Thomas’s decade-long stint in Cleveland.
“He’s a tremendous person,” said Zimmer. “Super player. To play that long and have that many reps over the course of time is like Joe Dimaggio.”
Even with Thomas blocking, the Browns allowed an NFL-high 66 sacks last season — 17 more than the next highest team total. Now they must face Minnesota’s top-10 pass rush without their stalwart left tackle.