Is Donald Thomas the Colts' Answer at Left Guard?

Colts new lineman Donald Thomas at June minicamp

Going into the 2013 offseason, the Colts’ front office had a clear priority. While general manager Ryan Grigson would continually emphasize his desire to upgrade the roster at every position (which he pretty much did, by the way), no area of improvement was more important than the offensive line.

According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback had more drop backs under pressure than Andrew Luck did in 2012. He was sacked 41 times last season, and if not for his understated athleticism, that number probably increases by about thirty percent. The only quarterback to attempt more passes than Luck last season was Matthew Stafford, and he was sacked only 29 times. Protecting the new franchise quarterback was at the top of Grigson’s list.

Aside from pass protection, the Colts’ running game has been substandard for several seasons. There has not been a 1,000 yard rusher since 2007. According to Football Outsiders, the Colts were 17th in rushing DVOA, and 27th in adjusted line yards per play. The guard position has been a game of musical chairs since 2008, and guys like Mike McGlynn and Seth Olsen were among the league’s worst interior linemen last season.

One of the first signings the Colts made this offseason was Donald Thomas, formerly of the New England Patriots. Primarily a reserve lineman, his name was not exactly at the top of most fans’ wish lists, but the Colts snagged him on a four year, $14 million contract. But he started seven games in 2012, and was highly rated by all the football head websites. Thomas is expected to start right away for the Colts, probably at left guard, where he spent most of his time with the Patriots.

But what exactly did the Colts get?

I think they got another good player. I have been watching some Patriots games recently, with an eye on Thomas, and he strikes me as a well-rounded lineman who will fit well with what the Colts want to do on offense. One of his starts last season came in the Patriots’ 59-24 smackdown of the Colts in Week 11. It makes sense that Grigson would have targeted Thomas in free agency, as he performed pretty well in that game. Here is what I noticed:

Good feet
The Patriots pull and trap often in their running game, and they move the pocket regularly in pass protection. This means that their interior linemen are not stationary very often, just blocking the man in front of them. Lots of scheme quirks that require the guards to move. And Thomas did that pretty well. I would stop short of calling him “nimble,” but he gets himself into good position, he gets around to pull just fine, and gets to the second level with ease. Good lateral movement, and could even play tackle in a pinch.

Strong hands and arms, troublesome technique
Probably the most conflicted area of his game, in my mind. He uses his hands well in pass protection, and has good arm strength. Arms are long enough to keep defensive linemen from getting into his body, and because he uses his feet well to give himself a strong base, he does not get pushed back. But in run blocking, he often gets his hands too far on the outside, and winds up bear hugging the defender, rather than purposefully blocking him. This was especially the case when he would get up or out against a linebacker.

The first offensive play the Patriots ran against the Colts was a trap, with the guard pulling to lead the way for the running back. The first image shows Thomas pulling into the hole, where his responsibility is to keep the back clean by clearing the hole. Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman is going to meet him there. Thomas gets around and up to the second level quickly, moving very easily for a guy his size. But instead of engaging Freeman with his arms out in front, and setting a block that keeps the hole open, Thomas engulfs Freeman, and is not able to control him.

This really should have been a holding penalty. Instead of using his arms and hands to control the defender, he winds up swallowing the defender. That is great for a defensive lineman against a ball carrier, but it greatly reduces the effectiveness of the block. I did not see him get called for the hold very often, but it is not good technique.

 

Another example, later on that same possession, down near the goal line. The Patriots run a toss left. Thomas is blocking the defensive tackle directly across from him, which is Fili Moala. This is more of a power blocking assignment, where Thomas is simply supposed to engage his man and push him up the field.

The first image shows the result of Thomas not getting his hands on Moala to control the block, and Moala is into Thomas’ body, and is already beating him to the outside. The second image shows Thomas trying to grab his man from the side, but Moala is there to stuff the run, and Freeman comes to help clean up. Had Thomas used his hands more effectively, this play would have had a chance.

And against a good defensive linemen with good upper body strength — like JJ Watt — that particular mistake is a recipe for disaster, as it leaves him vulnerable to any number of counters, especially the push-pull-rip (one of Watt’s favorites).

Good leverage, but leans too far in space
The hands issue might be related to leverage. Seems like Thomas gets his upper body out over his feet too often in run blocking. Better hip and knee bend would be a good start, and maybe he moves forward too fast, rather than staying in optimal blocking position. I think his stature is excellent in pass blocking, though, and along with good feet and a solid kick step, he keeps himself from getting pushed back or moved over. Which, combined with his size, is why I think he could play tackle if absolutely necessary.

Decent power
Not a road grader, but strong and stout. Again, technique in run blocking needs some coaching, and then his power will be more effective. Good feet and upper body strength keep him from being physically dominated at the point of attack, but he is not necessarily going to physically dominate his opponent every down. Especially those nasty defensive tackles.

Solid scheme fit
Not an issue in the passing game, as pass protection is pretty much the same across the board. We have not received a lot of information about what kind of run blocking schemes the offense is going to run just yet. It has gone from vague (‘We’re going to do whatever works best for our players’) to all-inclusive (‘we’re going to run zone schemes and man schemes), and I am not sure what to expect. To hear the coordinator and line coach tell it, we will use power schemes and zone schemes. I think Thomas is better fit for a zone scheme, since he is not the biggest or most powerful guy, and he has good feet. But I am kind of worried about his leverage and use of hands. If he straightens those technical issues out, he will be fine in either scheme.

Team friendly contract
It is a decent contract for four years, with mid-level compensation for what should at least be a mid-level player (possibly better than that). There is no guaranteed money beyond the 2013 season, according to reports. If he is an absolute bust after one year, the Colts can release him with just a $750k cap penalty in 2014. His base salary goes from $2.5 million in 2013 up to $3.5 million in 2014-2016, for a maximum cap hit of $3.75 million. Low risk, potentially high reward, and scratches a major longtime itch for this football team.

In all, I think the Colts signed a pretty good lineman. I expect Donald Thomas to lock down the starting left guard spot, and to contribute to a significantly upgraded offensive line unit in 2013. Just another part of what looks to be an excellent offseason by Ryan Grigson and the Indianapolis Colts.

Only twenty days until the first practices of training camp.

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