Is Joe Thomas the NFL's best left tackle?

Joe Thomas doesn't always get the recognition he deserves, but the anchor of Cleveland's front line may be the best left tackle in the league. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

BEREA, Ohio -- With the recent retirement of the Seattle Seahawks' Walter Jones, the title of NFL’s best left tackle is open for debate.

According to Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini, Joe Thomas deserves to be one of the first players in that discussion.

"I think he's gotta be in any of those conversations," Mangini said of his left tackle. "You have to discuss [Thomas] with whoever you want to put him with."

Thomas doesn't get the national recognition he deserves, in part, because of the market he plays in and the team he plays for. The Browns have just one playoff appearance since returning to the NFL in 1999. But ask any general manager, coach or most players, and Thomas might be the first name mentioned in the best left tackle conversation. Jake Long of the Miami Dolphins and Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles also merit consideration.

"I can't complain about anything," Thomas said. "I've been voted to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro and stuff like that, and those aren't really things I worry about too much. When we start winning -- hopefully this year -- the recognition for everybody will come to an even greater level."

Thomas laughed Friday when it was mentioned that he has played for three regimes and three general managers in his four seasons in Cleveland. It's kind of a cruel joke that one of the NFL's elite players has experienced so much turnover and chaos in his young career.

Since 2007, Thomas has been a calming influence for the Browns. Drama, in-fighting, constant losing and major changes have summed up Cleveland football for the past decade.

"It's been tough," said Thomas, who has been selected to three Pro Bowls. "A lot of good friends have come and gone -- players, coaches and administrators in the organization. It seems like every year we’ve been starting over and developing new relationships. But I'm really happy with the guys we have right now. I'm excited to build those relationships, and hopefully we have our core together and build for a successful run."

Expectations are again low in Cleveland. Many project the Browns to finish last in an ultra-competitive AFC North behind the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. All of Cleveland's division rivals finished with winning records in 2009. The Browns were 5-11.

One of the keys to success will rest with new quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has impressed Thomas. Coming off the worst year of his career in Carolina, Delhomme already has been criticized in Cleveland.

"[The offensive line] is taking huge ownership in being able to give him that opportunity to have a great year and lead this team to a lot of wins," said Thomas, who will protect Delhomme's blind side. "I think keeping him upright, giving him the time he needs, and me being the leader of the offensive line is important."

Thomas, Cleveland's No. 3 overall pick in 2007, is just now approaching his prime. When Mangini was asked about finding holes in Thomas’ game, he was stumped.

"Well, he only gave up one sack last year. It's a very small margin for error with sacks," Mangini said. "So he's pretty good."

Cleveland’s highly-touted '07 rookie class was led by first-round picks Thomas and quarterback Brady Quinn. They were expected to take the Browns to the next level. But four seasons later, Quinn is gone, dealt to the Denver Broncos in the offseason, and only three players (Thomas, Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald) remain from that draft class. The Browns were 10-6 in Thomas' rookie year but missed the playoffs.

"Any rookie that comes in, you expect to win the Super Bowl, expect to play in the playoffs and have a great career," Thomas said. "With the rookie class we came in here with, you kind of envisioned the way things are in college, where you come in with 20 guys, play four or five years, have good success and make great friends.

"Unfortunately, when you're not winning, a lot of guys [get moved], and there's only a few guys left in my draft class. It's been tough, but it's part of business. You can never foresee what happens in the NFL."

Thomas, who has two years left on his contract, hopes to sign another long-term contract with the Browns soon.

"I would definitely love to stay here," Thomas said. "It's something that we haven’t even talked about. It's in the future and those things take care of themselves. What matters is what happens on the field. But I love Cleveland, and I love the Browns' organization."