More of the same?
Banking on Thomas is no sure thing
Long before the free agency period began, strong side linebacker Adalius Thomas was designated the year's premier catch by many pundits and personnel men. Perhaps he will prove to be just that, but if history is any predictor, he should be approached with caution.
Thomas is a versatile, athletic, aggressive linebacker who at 270 pounds has played both strong safety and nose tackle, which is about as useful as a man can be on one side of the football. He has the speed to cover top tight ends like Antonio Gates; the agility to be used as the spy against mobile quarterbacks like Vince Young and Michael Vick (he broke Vick's ankle a couple of years ago after running him down); and the quickness to be a top pass rusher (28 sacks the past three seasons, including 11 in 2006).
So what would the doubts be about such a player? Three things, according one NFL personnel man: His age, his price tag, and the history of defensive players after they leave Baltimore.
"In free agency, the negatives are usually evident, but if you need something bad enough, you minimize them," said an AFC North executive Friday night, before it became clear the Patriots would make Thomas the richest free agent signing in team history. "We've all done it. That may be happening with this guy.
"Thomas is a good athlete, and he was productive in their scheme in Baltimore, but he's not good setting the edge against the run and he's not a traditional 'Sam' [strong-side] linebacker because he has trouble getting off a tight end's block. I saw [Daniel] Graham bury him against the Ravens a couple years ago. They ran right over him the whole game.
"A guy who can do as many things as Thomas can is the kind of player Bill Belichick likes, though. I heard he fell in love with him at the Pro Bowl. His versatility and his athleticism are big pluses, but that's a pretty big price tag for a guy who can't set the edge and will be 30 years old this season.
"Those are two things that won't change: He won't get younger, and at his age, if you're not good against the run, you can't be coached out of that.
"The fear I'd have is he may be a little bit of a system guy. Baltimore's defense is very aggressive. They attack from a lot of directions, so a guy like Thomas gets a lot of open runs [at the quarterback] with just a running back to block him.
"How will he do in a more disciplined system like the Patriots', where they expect you to stay at home and play your responsibility? The Ravens have had a lot of these kind of players on defense. They do well in Baltimore because of the scheme and because of [Ray] Lewis, [Ed] Reed, and [pass-rushing defensive end] Terrell Suggs.
"Take them away from that, and a lot of their players became different guys."
The Patriots have to hope Thomas will be the same guy he was last season, when he finished third on the Ravens with 106 tackles and was second in sacks, trailing Trevor Pryce's 13 while nosing out both Suggs and Bart Scott, who each had 9 1/2.
Such production is impressive. So is his athletic versatility, the kind that would allow a football mind as facile as Belichick's to have a field day using Thomas's skills differently from week to week to create difficult matchups.
What is worrisome, though, is whether the source of that production was more Thomas or the people around him.
Since the Ravens won the Super Bowl six years ago, they have lost a trainload of defensive talent in free agency. None of the players who departed went on to maintain their level of play at their new addresses.
That is true of defensive tackle Sam Adams, linebacker Jamie Sharper, cornerback Duane Starks, safety Kim Herring, cornerback Gary Baxter, defensive linemen Rob Burnett, Keith Washington, and Lionel Dalton, and linebacker Ed Hartwell.
The Falcons signed Hartwell to a six-year, $26.5 million contract three years ago and thought they had a bargain and a run-stuffing force. Hartwell never returned on that investment, though, partially because of injuries. He was released Friday.
Now it is Thomas whom the Ravens allowed to leave without a fight. That was not the case with Lewis or Reed, whom they paid handsomely to stay. General manager Ozzie Newsome has yet to make a mistake in that regard, and last week he made it clear he didn't believe he was making one with Thomas, either.
"This was not an 11th-hour decision," Newsome said. "We've been facing that since the beginning of training camp [in 2006], knowing that we could have to make that decision. I think it was a fair decision. I think it was fair to the organization and fair for A.D.
"I had a chance to sit down and talk with him the Monday before I came to the combine and explained our position, gave him an opportunity to talk to me. I think it was the fair thing to do.
"The way we approach it, we come to the threshold of what we think the player's value is in Baltimore. When it goes beyond that, then we don't mind them going out the door. If we lose them, we feel like we can go out and find some more."
Past history does not guarantee future success or failure, but the question that suitors of this year's Raven in flight had to consider was whether Thomas would prove to be the exception to the rule or just another former Raven about whom his new employer ends up saying a year or two later, "Nevermore"?
Obviously, Belichick believes the answer will prove to be the former, not the latter.