Thomas announced his retirement last week and had a farewell news conference Monday. He had played every snap of every game after being drafted third overall in 2007 until he tore his triceps tendon Oct. 22 against Tennessee. Before the injury, Thomas had pushed through knee and back issues to play 10,363 consecutive snaps.
The challenge in trying to replace a player who has been to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls and who was so reliable is immense. ProFootballFocus.com reported that Thomas gave up 30 sacks in 11 seasons, while his replacement last season, Spencer Drango, gave up 11 sacks in 11 games.
"Do you really replace a Hall of Fame player in the organization?" coach Hue 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 should get the first chance to step in, though Drango and newly signed Donald Stephenson will compete as well.
"What you try to do is put the best five offensive linemen in place," general manager John Dorsey said.
The day after Thomas announced his retirement in a news release last week, Thomas was in the fieldhouse working with Coleman on technique for playing the left side.
"You can just see that Shon is committed and he is looking forward to the challenge," Dorsey said. "That is all you could ask for."
What did Dorsey see in Coleman when he evaluated last season? "I saw a big guy with effort," Dorsey said.
Coleman, a cancer survivor, was a third-round pick in 2016. He started all 16 games in 2017, and ProFootballFocus gave him an overall grade of 53. In 659 pass-protection snaps, Coleman allowed six sacks, nine hits and 49 hurries, according to PFF. He was ranked 54th out of 81 tackles in pass blocking and 57th in run blocking.
The overall grade ranked Coleman 51st among NFL offensive tackles. By comparison, Drango received an overall grade of 47.7.
Drango started 10 games after Thomas' injury, and though the sack figure stands out he probably played better than expected, given the challenge.
Stephenson signed in Denver to be a right tackle in 2016, but lost the starting job last season. He worked only briefly at left tackle in the offseason in Denver.
"I think there is an opportunity to still be a good offensive line," Jackson said, "but we are not going to be the same line without Joe Thomas. There is no question about that."