BEREA, Ohio -- New England Patriots defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard represents one in a series of frustrating decisions by the Cleveland Browns the past few years, perennial Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas said Wednesday.
Thomas compared the departure of young veterans like Sheard to gutting the team's "middle class.'
"Certainly that's one of the frustrations that I've had over the years," Thomas said Wednesday. "That's the problem when you're constantly hitting the reset button. Guys that are really good players like that end up falling through the cracks or going to other teams because any time a new staff comes in basically they wipe out the middle class.
"They keep a couple of your 'superstars' and then they want everyone else being a rookie so that they can try to develop them. When you keep doing that over and over again you really lose all your middle class on your team."
The Browns roster that will face New England includes 17 rookies and four first-year players.
Sheard's tale seems to represent an entire group. New coaches and general managers come in and tend to dismiss the players signed or drafted by other coaches and GMs. Often, those players are allowed to depart.
Sheard was drafted in the second round by the Browns when Tom Heckert was GM in 2011. He left via free agency in 2015 when Ray Farmer was GM. Sheard spent four years in Cleveland and played through an injury in 2014, but the Browns made no effort to re-sign him.
New England and Bill Belichick signed Sheard the second day of free agency, and Belichick has raved about him since.
"A good kid, works hard, smart, very physically strong for his size, with good instincts, good awareness," Belichick said on a conference call with the Cleveland media. "He's a good football player."
Thomas' frustrations are understandable, especially when you look at the Browns defense, which will face the most experienced QB in the NFL Sunday in Tom Brady. The Browns have the youngest defense in the league, returned the fewest snaps from last season, and is playing the most rookies.
Thomas rattled off several names of players drafted by the Browns who left, either by being released or in free agency: Sheard, cornerback Buster Skrine (free agent to the Jets), linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (released and signed with the Colts), tight end Jordan Cameron (free agent to the Dolphins) and receiver Travis Benjamin (free agent to the Chargers).
He could have added offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz (free agent to the Chiefs) and free safety Tashaun Gipson (free agent to the Jaguars). Schwartz, Gipson, Benjamin and center Alex Mack all signed elsewhere on the first day of free agency in 2016.
Safety T.J. Ward is another excellent example. The Browns signed Donte Whitner instead of keeping Ward. Whitner played his last season for the Browns in 2015, the same season Ward was helping the Broncos win a Super Bowl.
Thomas said the situation is exacerbated when players who are drafted by the Browns leave after their first contract.
"Those are the guys, they disappear," Thomas said. "Even though those are the guys you spent the time, you drafted them, spent the time developing them and right when they're hitting stride, the peaks of their career, they end up going somewhere else and having great success for somebody else."
Since he was drafted in 2007, Thomas has played for six coaches. He is on his seventh general manager. He has played every down since he was drafted and been to the Pro Bowl every season he's been in the league.
"It's always my job to do whatever I can to try to help my team win," Thomas said, "and I've always kind of been focused on doing my job to the best of my ability. Because that's the best thing that I can do to help my team win. That's kind of what you just have to focus on when you lose great players like that."