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Monday Morning QB (cont.)

Posted: Monday March 5, 2007 1:38AM; Updated: Monday March 5, 2007 9:23PM
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In the final analysis, Thomas, affectionately dubbed
In the final analysis, Thomas, affectionately dubbed "The Coordinator," preferred to play on the East Coast with the Patriots.
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Last Thursday, I spoke with Thomas about his expectations as the first- or second-most desirable unrestricted free agent (along with cornerback Nate Clements, who signed a backloaded eight-year, $80-million deal with San Francisco on Friday). Thomas' attitude before the first offer was thrown out will make you understand why he left money on the table. And why he's not bothered by it.

"It feels crazy that I'm at this point right now,'' he said from his home outside Baltimore. "I've been in this league seven years. You wait for this moment, but I'm prepared for it. I'm not just going to the highest bidder. The situation has to be right. Does the coach treat his veterans right? Does the team seriously do everything it can to win? Is the organization a good one? Will my family be happy there?

"There are a few things I want to do with the money. I want to provide for my niece's and nephew's college educations. I'll buy a house probably. When your family members struggle all your life, you'd like to try to put them in a nice home if you can. I want to always remember this: the same elevator you took up to the top to allow you to make this money, you've got to send back down to get your family. Because it's family.''

The only other serious contender for Thomas' services was San Francisco. Everything about the 49ers interested Thomas, except the locale. "If it was all about money,'' San Francisco coach Mike Nolan told me Saturday, "I don't think we would have been outbid. But in the process of interviewing him Friday and him talking to me, I could see that some of the things I wanted to see happen weren't going to happen. I think geography had something to do with it.''

It was clear what he meant. If the 49ers were going to pay Thomas $8 or $9 million a year -- which the 49ers may have been willing to do if, like Clements, Thomas was willing to move lock, stock and barrel to the Bay Area -- it shouldn't be too much to ask that the player becomes a member of the community. Nolan likes his players to be in the area for the 14-week offseason strength and conditioning program, beginning March 19. He can't make it mandatory, but if a free agent tells him it's a problem, that's going to be a factor.

Thomas couldn't lie to Nolan, his former Baltimore defensive coordinator. He didn't want to move West, nor did he want to leave his family 3,000 miles away for four months. Thomas, from rural Mississippi, has grown to love the energy of the East, as has his family, and Foxboro was infinitely more preferable than Santa Clara.

"There was a good bit of interest from us,'' Nolan said, "but at the end of the day, New England's a better fit for him. What he wanted -- lifestyle, family concerns, a winning franchise -- he got in New England.''

Said Thomas: "I'm definitely a southern guy. I adapted to being an Eastern guy, and I like it. To adapt to the West, it would have been difficult, for a lot of reasons.''

Once the Niners were out of the picture, agent Bus Cook wisely went full-bore with the Patriots. The Patriots are smart. If they didn't get the deal done over the week, waited a few days and found out they were the only $7 million game in town, who knows? They might have reduced their offer. But there wasn't time. When the Patriots brought Thomas in for a visit on Saturday, Thomas met owner Bob Kraft, talked with Bill Belichick and saw the stadium. But there weren't many frills. He didn't even tour the locker room. "I like that it was low-key,'' he said. "I don't care about any of that other stuff.''

I asked Thomas, given the early estimates of a bigger deal, if he was disappointed with how this deal ended up.

"No,'' he said. "The contract is nice and clean. I'm happy with it. I'm not interested in being Nate Clements. You don't know how much of that contract is real, and how much is just paper. I know what my contract is.''

As for his future in New England, here's what I see: A team that will study every snap of the Ravens in 2006, and possibly the seasons before, to see how to best use Thomas. They'll look at a game like he played against San Diego in October, when Ryan told him to take tight end Antonio Gates out of the game and forget his defensive stats. According to a detailed game chart of Baltimore's 16-13 victory over San Diego -- one of only two games all season an opposing defense held both LaDainian Tomlinson and Gates scoreless -- the Chargers had 65 offensive snaps. Thomas played them all, in this breakdown:

Left outside linebacker: 27 plays
Right outside linebacker: 22 plays
Safety, running up to cover the slot receiver: 8 plays
Free safety: 1 play
Left end: 7 plays.

Bumped or covered for much of the day by Thomas, Gates caught four passes for 41 yards.

Pretty good weekend for the Patriots. New running back Sammy Morris will get 100 carries, block occasionally for Laurence Maroney and play special teams. You worry about Kyle Brady being 35, but one AFC personnel man told me he was the best blocking tight end in the AFC South last year. If he performs as well this season, at $3 million a year less than Daniel Graham would have cost, it's a good deal.

This looming Wes Welker offer sheet could bring a hidden gem to New England -- a punt-returner and possession receiver. Welker is only the second player in the last 15 years to lead his team in receptions (67), punt returns (9.2-yard average) and kick returns (22.2-yard average). The other was Derrick Mason for the Titans in 2001. Welker reminds me of a more versatile Steve Tasker.

He's a restricted free agent with a second-round tender, so if the Patriots make him an offer and Miami doesn't match, the Dolphins will get New England's late second-round pick in April. A steep price, but for a hungry Belichick-kind-of-kid like the 25-year-old Welker, well worth it.

Whew. What a hot stove league it's been so far. Hard to believe the Super Bowl was just a month ago on Sunday night.

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