If ever there was a position taken for granted that should no way, no how, never, ever be taken for granted, it is the left tackle spot. Yet over the course of the 11 seasons he played as an Eagle, Tra Thomas played so well that we just knew everything was going to be OK there. Speed rushers, power rushers, blitzes off the edge ... Thomas handled it all with professionalism, toughness and high, high character.
Thomas signed with Jacksonville on Monday, becoming the fourth Eagles veteran to leave in free agency. Only right tackle Jon Runyan and tight end L.J. Smith remain unsigned from the half-dozen Eagles who became unrestricted free agents on February 27. It is an amazing shift in the roster, and clearly it is a main theme of the Eagles' off-season: Get younger and more athletic at critical areas. How it works for 2009 remains to be seen, of course.
While the departure of Brian Dawkins continues to have reverberations among the fans and even inside the walls of the NovaCare Complex, the move of Thomas has a tremendous impact, too. Obviously, this decision was a two-way street, because Thomas said that he wanted to remain with the Eagles if things could be worked out. But the Eagles made their choice, and that choice is to, well, what is the choice going to be? We'll talk about that in a minute.
Now, for just a moment, it is time to pay tribute to Thomas and all that he meant here. Prior to his arrival in 1998, left tackle was a revolving door, a sieve, the most visible part of a not-very-successful effort to build a quality offensive line by prior head coaching regimes. Then Thomas came along as the 11th pick in the '98 draft. I was at a draft party the day he was picked, in fact, and the fans booed the selection because they wanted wide receiver Randy Moss, who eventually went to Minnesota later in the first round.
The Eagles got it right with Thomas. Known as an ultra-talented player coming out of Florida State, the only real question with Thomas was whether he would work hard enough to become a great player at this level. He did, and he was. Three times Thomas made the Pro Bowl, and he probably could have gone a couple of other times.
Eagles fans recognized Thomas by voting him as the left tackle on the team's 75th Anniversary Team in 2007.
"On behalf of the entire Eagles organization, I want to thank Tra Thomas for a fantastic 11-year run in Philadelphia," said Eagles president Joe Banner in a statement. "It's not often that offensive lineman get much praise and attention for their hard work, leadership and Pro Bowl play. But Tra deserves every ounce of it, and I know that our fans feel equally appreciative for everything he has done for this organization and the Philadelphia community. We will miss him and wish him all the best as he continues his career with the Jaguars."
Said head coach Andy Reid in a statement: "Tra has helped this organization win a lot of football games from a very important position on the football field. During his 11 years in this city, he's been nothing but a true professional and leader, both on and off the field. Most importantly, he's a proven winner in the National Football League and will go down as one of the finest offensive tackles in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles. We wish he and his family all of the best in Jacksonville."
Thomas has a new home, and the Eagles have to move ahead. What they plan to do at left tackle has not yet been announced, but I'm certain it has been discussed at length and that a plan is in place.
The good news is that there are options. Left guard Todd Herremans started five games as a rookie at left tackle and performed well. The Eagles wanted him inside, so he made the move to guard the next year, 2006, and Herremans has been a mainstay there ever since. Herremans "would love" to play tackle, he said last week, but he knows how it goes: The Eagles want him as good as he can be at both positions, just in case.
More intriguing, and probably a move that makes more sense in many ways because of the huge upside, is re-positioning the extraordinary talents of Shawn Andrews, a Pro Bowl right guard who can play any position -- save center -- on the line of scrimmage. He has so much athletic ability combined with the freakish power and the balance and everything you want in a lineman. Andrews had his tough, tough year last year, so there is an inherent risk in taking a chance on Andrews as a left tackle, so the Eagles would have to weigh that factor into the equation.
Certainly, Andrews would be a different kind of left tackle than Thomas. The technique and everything that Juan Castillo teaches is the same, yes, but where there could be a huge difference is the way the Eagles approach the running game. Thomas was never, even in his prime, a dominating drive blocker. Andrews is, and after his years of opening holes against 320-pound tackles, he might just swat away like flies all of those 270-pound defensive ends. He and Herremans would make a powerful left side of the line of scrimmage.
Other options? Yeah, but they aren't as realistic, or appealing. The Eagles haven't given up on Winston Justice, although he sure has a lot to do to even win a roster spot this season. And they think that second-year man King Dunlap has a future after spending his rookie season on Injured Reserve, but seeing him as a starter at this point in his NFL career is a real stretch.
Then, too, the Eagles can go the draft route to solve left tackle. They have the 21st and 28th picks in the first round of April's draft, and the tackle is said to be loaded with quality tackle prospects. The Eagles traded up to get Andrews in 2004, so the precedent is set: If the Eagles see someone they love, they won't hesitate to go up and get him.
In the end, I have total confidence that Castillo will do what is best for his line. He is the best in the business, a hard-working, deeply-caring offensive line coach who has one of his greatest challenges ahead. The Eagles have traded experience for youth and better athletic ability. If, for example, the Eagles use Shawn Andrews at left tackle and Stacy Andrews at right tackle, there wouldn't be a team out there with a better set of tackles from the standpoint of pure athletic ability. Castillo wants athletes, and then he teaches them technique. He has athletes, that's for sure.
Still, it's going to be strange not seeing Thomas at left tackle. Or Runyan at right tackle. And of course, Dawkins is a whole other story. This is, though, how it works in the NFL. Change happens. The teams that roll with the changes and transition as seamlessly as possible are the teams that win the most year after year. The Eagles have dealt with change very well in the past.
But they haven't had to change left tackle for 11 seasons. I've been around long enough to know what a nightmare the position was in the past. Thomas made all of that anxiety go away. Now he is gone, away in Jacksonville and everybody wishes him the best of luck. The Eagles are going to have a new man at the position. Just who, we don't quite know. Safe to say, it is a position to analyze intently once the practices begin.