ANDERSON — The last time Donald Thomas walked into Lucas Oil Stadium, he was on the losing end of Super Bowl XLVI with the New England Patriots.
On Sunday, he’ll return to make his Indianapolis Colts debut in the preseason opener against his old AFC East rivals – the Buffalo Bills.
“It’s going to be good,” he said. “You’ve seen these guys (teammates) for over a week now, and it’s always good just to brush up your skills against somebody else and get more into a game setting. So it’ll be good.”
If all goes well, fans won’t notice Thomas at all during his series or two of playing time. And that’s an odd statement to make about a man who is one of the two most important offseason additions made by general manager Ryan Grigson this year.
The Colts handed Thomas a four-year, $14 million contract to lock down the left guard position.
Joe Reitz was the starter there in 2011, but he was injured to start 2012 and wound up making just seven starts. Jeff Linkenbach -- who also spent time at right tackle -- made five starts in his place, and since-released Seth Olsen made four.
That position saw the most rotation on a line that went through nine different configurations because of injuries. The projected starting five played just four games together, and the team made increasing the stability of the offensive line a primary goal.
The biggest components of that plan were the signings of Thomas and right tackle Gosder Cherilus, who got a five-year, $34.5 million deal. That’s nine years and nearly $50 million total with one major aim in mind – protect the franchise quarterback.
In his rookie season, according to statistics from Pro Football Focus, Andrew Luck was hit, knocked down or sacked 122 times. That’s over 30 percent more often than the No. 2 quarterback on PFF’s list, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who was contacted by defenders on 93 occasions.
For the health of the team, and it’s future, that has to change. And, just more than a week into training camp, head coach Chuck Pagano likes what he’s seen.
“We’re going to get the ball out of his hands obviously a little bit sooner with some of the quick (passing) game, screens and draws and things like that,” he said. “Just keep growing, stay consistent. I think we’ve got a pretty cohesive unit (on the offensive line) that’s stayed healthy and stayed together for the most part through training camp. So we just want to continue to trend in that same direction.”
As oft-stated by new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the Colts also want to run the football more effectively. They are emphasizing a power running game and asking the offensive linemen to play with increased physicality.
That suits Thomas just fine.
The 27-year-old, who has made 21 starts over four NFL seasons with the Patriots and Miami Dolphins, said a good running game is a key to any good football team.
Running the ball obviously helps set up the play-action passing game, but it can slow down the rush on more conventional drop-back passes as well.
And both factors should help keep the pocket cleaner for Luck.
But that’s not the only reason Thomas, who figures to be a full-time starter for the first time, is excited about Hamilton’s offense. He said it’s important for the Colts to feature a “well-rounded” attack and keep defenders guessing what’s coming next.
“If you can run the ball on third-and-3 instead of passing the ball and know you can get a first down, it’s key,” Thomas said. “ … It’s just when those runs are dialed up, you have to execute them and make them go.”
When runs are called, Thomas will be a key figure in that execution.
His Indianapolis career got off to something of a slow start when injuries delayed his on-field work in offseason team activities this spring.
But ever since he arrived at Anderson University for his first training camp with the Colts, Thomas has looked like a solid investment.
“Nasty, tough, smart,” Pagano said. “He brings that type of mindset that we are talking about, physicality to our offensive line, accountable, durable. I know he missed a bit of time in the offseason, but through one week, day in and day out he’s been as solid as anybody in the offensive line.”